The quiet, unassuming Roy Applequist, founder of Great Plains, was the subject of many Farm Equipment interviews since Lessiter Media acquired the magazine in 2004. Whether at his factory, at association events or on the National Farm Machinery Show floor in Louisville, the blue-jeans-and-flannel-clad executive was somewhat of a reluctant interview, though effective ice breakers were learned along the way, including industry trends/data, engineering and manufacturing, the foundry business (where he cut his teeth professionally) and what editors were seeing in our travels to farmers, dealers and other manufacturers.

No-Till Farmer (also published by Lessiter Media) presented Applequist and Great Plains with the No-Till Innovator Award in 2010 for the firm’s commitment to helping growers adopt no-till techniques. Not only was Applequist a pioneer in developing no-till drills, but his firm supported the much-needed education required to advance any change in traditional farming 

While other manufacturers’ support could be equal only to their ability to pitch their own iron, Great Plains stressed agronomic knowledge and farming concepts first. In time, Applequist and his team not only educated and informed farmers of the soil- and water-saving advantages of no-till, but also the cost advantages over conventional production.

In 2017, Applequist was named one of “25 Living Legends of No-Tillage” by No-Till Farmer. “We helped develop the no-till market in a time when the major equipment manufacturers didn’t want to see it survive,” he says, “as fewer trips over the field and fewer hours in the tractor wasn’t conducive to manufacturers’ profits.”

Starting Over in New Wholegoods Business. Applequist grew up working in his dad’s machine shop and bearing business, which after acquisitions became known as Roberts Industries. The weekend after arriving home from college in 1968, the foundry manager quit, and Applequist was tapped by his father to manage the iron foundry. 

In 1976, his father sold his company to Federal Mogul Corp. and retired. That same year, the 30-year-old Applequist needed something to do and chose to follow his dad as an entrepreneur. He formed Great Plains Manufacturing in the same Salina, Kan., building his dad had first started his various enterprises 3 decades earlier.

Because his dad’s business had been supplying components to ag equipment manufacturers, Applequist was exposed to the implement world. And while on his father-in-law’s farm, he came to believe he could offer farmers more choice and better engineered equipment, namely grain drills. But with more of an “iron-bender” mentality than a farmer (and new to wholegoods), he wanted proof-of-concept on the end-wheel drill idea he’d come up with.

“Before I did anything, I went to about 100 farmers in Kansas, but nobody wanted a better end-wheel drill,” he says. “So that idea was kind of a non-starter.”

But his listening skills and the experience and agility of a job shop manufacturer came in handy. “Everybody wanted a better folding drill with a large box that could be transported when full, so that’s what we ended up with,” he says. “The first year, we built a 30-foot prototype.”

Applequist took some photos of the single prototype, created a flier and mailed it to 1,200 farmers along with a survey on sizes, row spacings and grain types. “ I said, ‘If you’d like to help me test this prototype, fill out this form and send it back in.’ We drew an outstanding 30% response rate.” 

Applequist hand-carved from wood a model of his drill (pictured at left) that he could carry in the passenger seat of his pickup truck as he hit the countryside looking for business. He quickly recruited farm equipment dealers to sell and service his drill. 

“That second year we sold 25, the third year 100, and then the fourth year we built 225,” he recalls of the lightning-fast start. Applequist’s name would soon be found on 6 Great Plains patents.

While expanding its plant operations, Applequist was also a visionary in launching its own full-fledged trucking division in 1982 to deliver its products to dealers and bring back raw materials for production. Further, Great Plains Acceptance Corp. was created in 1991 to provide financing to farmers and dealers.

“Roy was always looking for the next new product and the next new market. He knew dealers always wanted something new to sell, and he taught us all to believe that a strong R&D department would keep dealers interested in us. And keeping our customer service top-notch would keep dealers and end users coming back to us. Roy was not just our boss; he was a team player. He was interested in hearing what others had to say and encouraged us to share our views. There was a lot to learn from watching this quiet mentor interact with and treat employees. He cared about them as people, and he cared about the communities we all lived in…” – John Quinley, hired by Applequist at the age of 24 in 1981 and retired as Land Pride president after 40 years in 2021

It was not long before the company expanded its product offerings. Great Plains’ timeline shows a number of key “firsts” — no-till drill (1983), folding no-till drill (1990), sprayer (1994), hydraulic down pressure folding drills (1996), tillage (2000), vertical tillage (2002), twin-row planter (2003), bulk-fill air seed delivery planters (2004) and planter meter (2009).

Standing Up for Innovation

Applequist was one of only a few manufacturers in the 1980s that designed equipment specifically for no-till — a “maverick” farming practice scoffed at by farmers, manufacturers and academics alike. Yet Applequist held firm to the belief that there were real savings and benefits to no-till and helped advance the practice by supporting farmers’ education, including numerous conferences, events and the seminal Milan No-Till Field Day.

Later, when the majors increasingly attempted to “box out” their independent competitors from dealers’ lots, Applequist was not shy about speaking up or addressing the majors’ claims about shortlines being a distraction to dealers’ business. Through articles and videos with Farm Equipment, he went on the record in diffusing the anti-shortline sentiment that big manufacturers and even some dealers held — but which the farmer certainly didn’t agree with. Applequist believed that shortlines could bring in traffic from another colored buyer, and backed up a number of inaccurate claims with Great Plains’ own facts and performance metrics. 

In fact, he believed so much in shortlines that he started his own shortline equipment dealership in 2006 in Illinois (Clinton Equipment Co.). After a few years and more global opportunity for his fledgling firm, Applequist got out of the retail business to concentrate on his core business, but he’d put his money where his mouth was and created an outlet for several brands to provide choice to farmers in a “locked-out” market.

Great Plains was also among the first manufacturers to offer vertical-tillage tools as well as advance the agronomic understanding of the twin-row planting concept.

Making Things Right

A success and then a problem, were instrumental in gaining farmers’ and dealers’ trust. The folding drill took off, he says, and a number of dealers were selling more than 20 per year. Farmers wanted ever bigger units, and while his designs worked exceptionally well in no-till operations, the placement of the wheels were creating ruts when turning in softer, conventionally-tilled field conditions.

Applequist made the expensive choice to fix 100% of the units. “We had to go back and retrofit a couple hundred of those things to get the wheels in the right place. That was a challenge for us.

“We set up locations in Illinois and Indiana where we had sold the largest volumes of these drills. Farmers would bring their drill to the location and our crew would take the gauge wheels off and switch them to the front.”

This kind of fix was incredibly expensive for the still-young company but had an enormous impact on its future. “It was one of the best things the company ever did, as it demonstrated we’d stand behind our products — no matter what — and was a major step forward in reputation and trust.”

Land Pride

The ag depression of the mid-1980s led Applequist to find a diversification strategy. He founded Land Pride in 1986 to produce smaller implements for the landscaping and dirt-working markets, and the division quickly established itself in grooming mowers, rotary tillers, rotary cutters, landscape seeding equipment and dirt working implements. Within its first two decades, LandPride would represent 50% of the company’s revenue and was a leader in the burgeoning rural lifestyle equipment market.

Entering Tillage

After the disappointing loss of a big AGCO order, Applequist needed to quickly “regear” in a big way — one that he eventually chalked up to an important moment for his company. His acquisition of Kent Manufacturing in 2000 put the company into the tillage business — a segment that at Great Plains’ founding he’d considered too crowded to enter. While most of the firm’s growth was organic, another acquisition in 2010, of the UK-based Simba, marked another significant change. The acquisition resulted in the creation of the Great Plains International Division, led by son-in-law Danial Rauchholz until the Great Plains’ sale in 2016.

Strategic Alliance

At an interesting time regarding distribution issues, the idea of strategic alliances hit critical mass in 2007 when Land Pride and Kubota Corp. established a formal partnership in 2007. The marketing agreement aligned Land Pride’s implements to Kubota tractors, instantly giving Land Pride access to Kubota’s full dealer network. 

After a highly successful arrangement for both organizations, the entire Great Plains Manufacturing organization (employment 1,400) was sold to Kubota Corp. for $430 million in July 2016.

What He’s Up to Today

The Applequist family recently started its 3rd generation of manufacturing through Applequist Manufacturing Inc. (AMI), based in Smith Center, Kan. Built to manufacture a broad range of ag and industrial equipment, the new 138,000-square-foot facility employs 50. To date, products include a Falcon stripper-header, TerrainGrade land plane and TerrainFlex walking beam for air drills. Dealer recruitment efforts began in June

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