Below is the full interview between Mike Lessiter, editor of Farm Equipment, and Marion Calmer. Calmer tells the origin story of his experience in no-till innovations at Calmer Ag Research Center, Calmer Farms and Calmer Corn Heads — even though he thought he just wanted to be a farmer.
Marion Calmer: And I'm Marion Calmer. And I am the owner of Calmer Farms. I'm the owner of Calmer's Ag Research Center, an independent research center, and also Calmer Corn Heads.
Mike Lessiter: Interesting thing is, you've done some of this before when…
Marion Calmer: Oh yeah, with your dad — your dad and me were down and… So, you got some notes probably from some of the things that, way back.
Mike Lessiter: It's '11. Time flies.
Marion Calmer: God.
Mike Lessiter: Six years ago.
Marion Calmer: Yeah. We were just, we were just starting to... I was just starting to find out what it was like to have, you know, a positive checking account.
Mike Lessiter: So this is all this is. Yeah.
Marion Calmer: It’s amazing what a difference that has in your attitude when you wake up in the morning.
Mike Lessiter: Yeah.
Marion Calmer: In the mid-80s I started to do on-farm research, and which led me to the discovery of yield advantage and narrow-row corn in the mid-90s, which led me to building the world's first 15-inch corn head, which then led me to a residue buildup problem in the late '90s with the onset of Bt corn stalks and then that led me to designing and manufacturing the Bt Chopper stalk roll, and starting up the company that we now call Calmer Corn Heads.
To sum it up it, we find problems that occur during harvesting and we come up with solutions. And it's mainly based in the corn head area which relates us to the residue of the corn stock, and the ability to, to put a lot of yellow ears in the combine which then is a chain of events, which makes it easier for the operator to set the machine, and it makes it easier for the machine to get a nice clean sample which then is a chain of events that gives us a higher quality product that we can export and hopefully will gain us some repeat business down the line somewhere — that somebody will choose to buy our corn instead of somebody else's corn.
Mike Lessiter: So, you're a farmer. You're a researcher. You're an equipment manufacturer.
Marion Calmer: Yeah. I guess, you know, originally, I had spent some time with Gage corporation and with some of my first inventions and then with John Deere for a little while and ultimately I decided that, you know what, I just wanna do it myself. And so we started this thing in the back of our little machine shed and kind of playing around.
And so the 15-inch corn head was, was the first thing that we built, actually as a response to the agronomy work that we had done, and showed a nice yield advantage of about 5%, or 10 bushel. And the only problem was that there wasn't anything to harvest that with. And so, I built one in my shed, but at the time, I did not realize that it was patentable and then found out that I should probably visit with a patent attorney.
So, that's kind of what led us to that early innovation. And then in the, the 2002 era, 2003, when we actually started building things and selling them to farmers. I don't know that that was one of my dreams early on was to become a manufacturer of corn heads and corn head parts. But, I think we just tried to follow the path. And, I always tell everybody, it's almost as if our greater Lord and God had created this path, and it was just a matter of time before I realized that, and I needed to follow that to be able to help food production and also the preserving of our natural resources here in this country, and as well as worldwide.
Mike Lessiter: What was your plan when you were 16 years old?
Marion Calmer: Yeah. When I was, when I was 16, I just loved farming. And I always have and I always will. And that was my dream ever since my childhood. So, when I was a senior in high school, I borrowed $500 from grandma and $500 from the local bank, and said, “I'm gonna go out and buy 10 pigs.”
And started to grow, corn, soybeans and, and pigs. That first year, I realized there was a lot of things that I didn't know about growing corn and soybeans and pigs. So, my oldest brother was farming at the same time. And we were working together quite a bit and with dad, you know. And, he just turned to me one day. We were driving down the road, and he said, “You know, if the two of us are gonna farm for the rest of the time,” he said, “One of us ought to go to college and know what's going on.”
So, that was the moment in time, one of those “a-ha” moments. I said, “Yeah.” And so, I spent one year, between high school and college, and I think that was a great moment for me. Because I ended up going to college because I wanted to be there and I wanted to learn about agriculture. But I still just wanted to come home and grow corn, soybeans, and pigs for the rest of the time. Never dreamed any of this was in my future.
Mike Lessiter: So, growing up were you — up until that time — had you recognized that you were a tinker, that you were, you were going to be inventing stuff, or did that drop in? Was there a moment of clarity that that popped in for you?
Marion Calmer: You know, since I was a kid, you know, dad was, we always had older machinery. And, uh, I was just so thankful for the ancestors, that I had and I think that's part of it that's brought me to where I am today. My ancestors actually came over from Sweden and they were blacksmiths. And they settled in our local community which is mainly Swedish, predominantly Swedish. And, then they also started to farm at the, at the same time.
And so, my grandfather and his brother were the first ones to take a wooden corn sheller, stationary corn sheller, and they mounted it on a solid rubber-tiered Model T truck. And so, my grandfather and his brother would go around the community and they would shell ear corn out of the cribs. And so, they were — as we've been told — were some of the first ones to invent the mobile corn shelling unit that you saw Deere & Company made the trucks…
And, from that, then of course they passed that onto to dad, that innovation. And so, growing up with dad, you know, I would come home from school and be frustrated because everybody else was planting corn and we were still working on old machinery. And, I turned to dad one day at the kitchen table and I said, “You know, why don't we go out and, and buy some newer machinery, and then we won't have to be working on all the old machinery. And when I come home from school, we could be planting corn instead of fixing machinery.”
Dad turned to me, you know, kind of smiling and he said, “Well, why would we wanna buy any new machinery?” He said, “Let's just figure out what's wrong with what we have. And, then let's fix it and make it better, and then we'll have what we need.” And, that kind of stuck with me. And I kind of learned that train of thought and that thinking of, “What's the problem?” And then, “what's the solution?”
And, so, I think that was instilled in me as I grew up. So, and then being a gearhead, you know, I liked working with machinery and cars and stuff like that, and trucks, and tractors, and so on and so forth. So, I had always kind of been building some of my own farm machinery, or modifying my own farm machinery. And dad enjoyed that kind of stuff as well, but it wasn't until when I was in my mid-30s… that finding out that I was actually an inventor of something was all new to me.
Mike Lessiter: Tell me about that, that time in your 30s and what you would define as your first invention.
Marion Calmer: The agronomy research thing was what kicked in in the middle '80s. And, I remember I bought my first farm, struggling to start my own farming operation from scratch, and financially it was, it was a real challenge during the '80s, and I guess I feel fortunate that I survived the '80s, to go on. So I bought my first farm one year before land prices bottomed down in '84.
And, after the farm sale is over, I realize that well, now I've gotta pay for it. And I thought to myself, I need to know the most profitable ways of growing corn and soybeans, so that I can make payments. And I don't wanna lose my farm. And, so that's what was the motivation behind the on-farm research. And, that was a good thing, got to meet a lot of interesting people. And, so then as I progressed through that, then some of the farm media started picking up on the fact that I owned an independent Ag research facility and nobody was funding me any money. And I get to this day to take my first dollar. I do it all myself, and then I just share that information.
Mike Lessiter: That's important. This is not bought research. That's —
Marion Calmer: You're exactly right. That, and I think that's what makes me popular around the country is the fact that everybody knows, “Well, this is the truth. You know, Marion hasn't had a chance to be biased by anything.” So, the farm media started to pick up. And I started appearing on the cover of magazines about the on-farm research that I was doing. And, so then that led to phone calls that said, “Hey, we would like you to come speak to our group of farmers at our fertilizer dealership, or the Innovative Farmers of Huron County, or at the National No-Till Conference, or for Monsanto, or DuPont, or whoever.”
And Yetter was a big part of this whole trip. So, from that to the DuPont No-Till Neighbors, I was one of the four in the state of Illinois practicing no-till. Then tthey asked me to host a field day, and we had a great turnout. And then from there, the Yetter people asked me to talk and then from there the Monsanto people, and then the No-Till people, and, so it's just a chain of events once that opened up.
But, the moment that I still remember was that as I was on the speaking circuit, I was, during the winter month, had flown up into the Thumb of Michigan and the Innovative Farmers of Huron County actually asked me to speak. And so, I'm up there and I'm clicking through, and I said, “Well, I've been working with a neighbor,” and I said, “You know, here's his planner, and here's my planner and we're comparing 30-inch rows to 36-inch rows.”
And I presented the data, and I said, “You know, about a five or six bushel advantage if you go from 36's down to 30,” because that's what, at that point in time, everybody was still looking at. And, so, one of the farmers raised his hand and he said, “Well, have you ever researched growing corn in rows that are narrower than 30 inches?” And that was the moment I said, “You know, I have not.” And he said, “Well, up here,” he said, “You know, we've got sugar beets and 22-inch rows, and we'd be interested in knowing.” And so, as I'm going home on the plane, I'm sitting there in my notebook — I said, this is something I wanna look at.
And, I had built this planter to plant 6-inch rows of soybeans with a 6-inch seed space, and it was the older Cyclo planters that had the drum on there. So, as I'm in the plane, I'm sitting there thinking, “You know, if I took a roll of duct tape and put the corn drums on this planter instead of the bean drums, I could do research for this individual and I could, with that roll of duct tape, I could plant 12-inch row corn, 18-inch rows, 24-inch rows, 30's and 36's, same planter, same field, same variety, same hybrid, same population, and all that.
And so, I got it all figured out in my head, and I got home. And in that spring, we went out right behind the machine shed and laid out all these plots. And they'd come up out of the ground, and I'm like, “Boy, this is really cool.” And then it dawned on me. How are you gonna harvest it, you dummy?
Then I was kind of forced, you know, I've gotta start giving some thought.
Mike Lessiter: And then not a lot of time to —
Marion Calmer: Well, not a lot of time. And, you know, during the summer, we're still giving field tours and everybody's asking, “How are you gonna harvest it?” And, so, we were lucky enough that, like, the 12-inch rows, we used the 30-inch head and we pulled two rows together. So, we would pick these plots, two rows at a time 'cause you couldn't take a full swap. You just knocked down too much. So, we picked two rows. And then we get the 12-inch stuff done. And then we pulled in, and then we'd pick one 18-inch row. You know, we'd peel it off and we'd go down and we'd pick one row on the way back.
Then we'd get through the next plot, and then we'd go to the wider ones. And so, we did that. We had a couple replications. And it, it took a couple of days to harvest all these plots, you know, one or two rows at a time, and then weigh it all off. And then when I compiled the data, I could see there was a strong yield advantage to go onto the narrow-row rows. And I said, “The only missing piece to the puzzle is the corn head.”
And so, then I start to struggle. Well, am I gonna go 12-inch rows, or 18-inch rows, or whatever? And, you know, the splitter planters from Jon Kinzenbaw were of course around planting soybeans, no tilling, doing a great job. And, I'm also growing seed corn for our local Pioneer plant that's right there along the interstate in Woodall. So, I'm thinking about the future at a 7,000 John Deere planter. And, I'm thinking all over, no-till, the latest no-till gadgets, you know. And I'm thinking, “Well, I still need to grow seed corn for Pioneer, 'cause that's, that's making good money. Hard work but good money.”
And I said, “if I had a 15-inch planter, I could grow 15-inch soybeans, no-till soybeans. I could grow 30-inch seed corn, and then I could also, on the other acres, I would grow 15-inch commercial corn.” So, I thought, that's the planter. That's the system. And I have the ability to go to any row spacing. And then, I said, “We, we've got to come up with a corn head.” And so, we started thinking about it. And everybody said, “Well, you'll never, you'll never be able to build a corn head.” So, I remembered back to being in the neighbor's cornfield doing some custom work with an older head, you know. I was at the end of the field and I had one pass to go, and I broke a gathering chain.
And, so I had to stop. All the ears had piled up. And so, I cleaned it all out, and took the old gathering chain, threw it in the cab, and I'm like, I'm gonna finish. I'm not gonna stop and go back and get a new chain, put it... So, I go another 15 feet and then I could just watch all the ears piling up in the row unit. And I'd stop and I'd clean them all out. And then I went real slow and then I would kind of watch how those ears would come up in there, and then they would fall over into that voided area that was left because the chain that had fallen off.
And, I said, gosh, I said, “I just had, like, a two before, or something, to lay down in that void area.” I said, “Those ears would stay up there and I'd be able to get to the end of the field.” And I kind of looked over on the fence and I didn't see anything. So, I just kept cleaning it out and finally I got to the end of the field. And then I think I finally turned the combine around and just picked three rows at a time until I got done.
But that had been, like, five years before. And then I got to thinking about the narrow-row corn, the 15-inch corn and started measuring the gear boxes. And the first one we measured was, like, 15 1/8 inches wide. And I looked at it and I said, “I think we can take a hand grinder and narrow it up to 15 inches.” But I said, “What am I gonna do here with...” And, and there was not enough room for two chains. And, so then this concept hit me of what I'd remembered across the, the road at the neighbor's field. And, so then we started playing around, and I think some of the first ones were just, you know, a piece of steel or a piece of wood. Because with a piece of wood, it was easy for us to take the saw and manipulate the design. And so we kind of played around with that. So, the first maiden voyage was an old junky four-row head that we'd pulled out of the fence row, put it in the shed with my little combine, and I hired men to help me. And so, we took all the row units off, and hand grinder and slid them together.
And then we had to get rid of that gathering chain shaft. And so we tried to just cut it off with a cut-off wheel. Oh, it's hard and steel, you know, and you can hardly cut it off. And, but we finally managed to get it, cut it off and grind it down. And, a little bit later, the hired men and I were looking at each other and said, “You know, we could have just opened up the gear box and just took the shaft out.” It would have been a lot simpler.
So then, in December of 1994, then we took the video camera, the old VHS and, and crawled near combine, and I had left corn stand for the deer. I said, “Well, now is a perfect time to go out and and try it out.” We did the maiden voyage. It was like 13 degrees out. I had the camera and we went the length of the field.
And so, we had, we had done the research on the different row spacings, seen the data and so then we went right to working on the corn head in my heated shop. And, so then we made a couple more design changes and, you know, we, of course we had to build… you know, you couldn't buy any new parts. We had to build everything with a torch and a hand grinder and a welder. So, we kind of had a design that we thought would work and, and then a friend of mine told me that what I had done was patentable.
He said, “You need to shut your mouth and get to a patent attorney.” And so, my first patent attorney, again, this is... All of these things almost were like somebody had laid them out ahead of me and all I had to do was execute. He was retired from Deere & Company. And he had his own private practice as a patent attorney. They called him the Wizard. He was in charge of Deere & Company's intellectual property department.
I sat down, visited with him and told him what I'd done. And he says, “That, that is patentable.” And I said, “Well, how do you know?” And he said, “Well, I've been in the industry at Deere and Case, and if anybody had done this,” he said, “I would know about it.” And he said, “We'll do a patent search, but,” he said, “I'm pretty sure you're gonna get a patent.”
And he started the patent application. As I was leaving his office, I turned to him and I said, “So, why is it you're retired from Deere? I would assume you'd be at home watching the logs burn in a fireplace.” And, Vince, he turned to me and he says, “You know something.” He said, “I just like the fun of it and the innovators that I meet.” He had worked with Eugene Keeton. He's a good buddy of his, Howard Martin, and Gregg Sauder. And so, he had a pretty good track record of —
Mike Lessiter: Those were all guys we're doing, interviewing for this series.
Marion Calmer: Oh, yeah. Great group of guys. I have been honored to have their wisdom, their knowledge and, and stuff. So, I said, “Well, good answer. You write my patent up for me.” He says, “I'll do that.” I was going through the door, he says, “Hey, c ome back here.” I said, “What?” He said, “I've met your kind before.” And I said, “Really?” And he goes, “Yep. I'm pretty confident that once you learn the train of thought for innovation, and once you learn the system of filing patents and what it takes, I'm pretty confident that you're just going to continue to come out with inventions and patentable concepts into the future. And it'll be in the corn harvesting department.”
Mike Lessiter: So, he's kind of telling you, your farm days alone are over —
Marion Calmer: Yeah. He, he could kind of see the writing on the wall. I turned to him and I said, “Vince,” I said, “You're wrong. This is a one and done deal. I just stumbled onto this idea, we're gonna run with it wherever it takes us.” But I said this. And today I think we have like 20 different inventions over this 20-year stretch. I think I was in my late 30s and now I'm 61. So, had a few years to work on coming up with new ideas.
Mike Lessiter: So, was that experience that led you to working with the major line OEMs at that point? Was that next?
Marion Calmer: Yep. The very next call, as soon as we had filed the patent, I had contacts at both Deere and Case. I showed them what we had done. We had some field days for them. And they were both interested, and sitting down and having some conversations. But at that point in time, we decided to visit with the Case people, and I, born and raised with red machinery.
So, we visited with them. And we started there. Things were okay, but, you know, the innovation and where I was at was quite always ahead of what they were looking at. The marketing people, like, they thought I've got the next great toy. Narrow-row corn is gonna be the next step in agriculture. And marketing people were really excited about it.
But on the corn head side, we couldn't pull it all together quick enough. Then I moved on and worked with the John Deere people. You know, I'd learned a lot and I think both Deere and Case learned quite a bit. The younger engineers learned quite a bit from me while I was there. And, a little bit about the manufacturing, a little bit about the economics, a little bit about the business plan, and I turned to all the guys. I said, “Business plan? What's that?”
He goes, “Well, that's a plan that shows we're gonna make some money when we build this.” So, I had heard some of that, and, and knew, you know, how to be able to come up with the markup, you know, and learn about cost to manufacture, and you know, hardening and there's a lot, there was a lot of education. It went both ways.
So then, in the early 2000 era then I'm gonna need to go at it alone, if we're gonna make this thing fly, I gotta do it myself. And I had met Jon Kinzenbaw and visited with him at, at one of your No-Till conferences, and we'd given him an award for an innovator as well.
I called one day and talked to his secretary. And I said, “Well, I'm Marion Calmer. I invented the 15-inch corn head. I'd like to talk to Jon, 'cause he invented the 15-inch bean planter.” And she was, "He's pretty busy. Let me check.” Pretty soon, Jon comes on the phone. “Hey, Marion, how's it going?” I said, “Great. I’m from Illinois.” He said, “I know who you are, I read all about you in the magazine.” He was all excited and gave me some of his wisdom, you know, during his learning curve of going from, you know, re-horse powering up John Deere tractors to building planter frames and to where the company is today.
He just turned to me at the meeting set in Des Moines. I was there. Frank was at the table of this. And, Jon just turned to me. He said, “Marion, I'm here to tell you, if you want this thing done and done right, you'll do it yourself.” Grandpa used to say the same thing, “If you want it done right, do it yourself.” And, so we started our own company. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to become a short line manufacturer of corn heads and corn head parts, let alone build the world's largest corn heads, the one with the narrowest row spacings, and, and invent the world's first chopping stalk row.