Since 1837 when blacksmith John Deere created the first polished-steel plow so farmers could cut furrows through dense prairie soil, farm equipment makers have been a mainstay of U.S. manufacturing.
But the sharp contraction in the U.S. economy starting in late 2007 and the subsequent surge in the dollar as investors sought the safety of U.S. government securities made sales tough -- especially overseas.
Now the tables have turned. A rapid fall in the dollar in recent months has helped many family-owned makers of tractors, combines and plows that struggled to make it through the Great Recession.
Sandy Kimball, president of Bigham Brothers, Inc. in Lubbock, Texas, which makes row crop equipment for farmers of soy beans, corn and cotton said "inquiries tripled from potential overseas clients."
"As the dollar has weakened a little bit, it has got easier," Kimball said. The dollar is down 6 percent against a basket of currencies in 2009.
U.S. officials have publicly stuck with a strong dollar policy. Yet with low interest rates and record borrowing amidst the longest recession in generations, some suspect they are glad to see the economic benefits of cheaper exports as U.S. unemployment approaches 10 percent.
With massive global sales, companies like Deere & Co have seen sizable benefits in Asia and South America from the anemic buck -- benefits that smaller, family-owned firms are now also reaping.
Kimball said business at the privately held manufacturer, where exports make up about 5 percent of sales, died last September as the U.S. economy contracted. It then picked up as the North American winter came on, with noticeably more foreign interest.
Though off a "very small base, overseas sales are up 50 to 60 percent above last year," Kimball said, adding that higher U.S. labor and regulatory costs have often made it difficult to sell overseas.
Ric Kirby, 45 and a third-generation farm equipment maker, agreed the weaker dollar was a boon.
"The weaker dollar helps two-fold," said Kirby, president of Kirby
Manufacturing, Inc., a maker of cattle feeding equipment from Merced, California. "With competitors in Canada and Europe that bring product into the U.S.A., it helps Kirby domestic sales as their products are more expensive.
In foreign markets, the weaker dollar "makes our products more affordable," he said.
And that gives reason for exporters to the United States to grumble. Companies as large as European planemaker Airbus have complained in recent weeks that industrial companies with costs in euros are facing difficulties because of the euro's strength.
Though Kirby declined to comment on the dollar value of transactions given the company is privately held, he said around 20 to 25 percent of total Kirby sales are export related, with their big markets in Japan, Mexico and Saudi Arabia.
Kirby Manufacturing has been in business since 1946 and has 65 employees in three plants, two in California and one in Torreon, Mexico. It began exporting in the early 1970s.
With lesser export markets in China, Indonesia, Korea, the Phillipines and Egypt, and the average export sale at $70,000, swings in the dollar can account for changes of up to five percent either way in those exports, Kirby said.
Kirby said sales of total mixed ration feeders, which blend different bales and roughage, to Japan have picked up in recent months, with the dollar losing 2.6 percent in the second quarter and 6.8 percent in the third three-month period, leaving it little changed against the yen for the year to date.
And domestically, as in 2008 when the rise to parity by the Canadian dollar slowed imports from competitors north of the border, Kirby Manufacturing is having an easier time in U.S. markets with the dollar trading at C$1.0683 Kirby said.
Kirby and Kimball are far from alone in welcoming the increase in business from a weaker dollar.
Privately held Krause Corp. in Hutchinson, Kansas was founded in 1916, has 225 employees, 400,000 square feet of factory space and reports $50 to $100 million in gross revenues a year.
The maker of soil management equipment sells primarily in the U.S.A. and Canada but 20 percent of its revenues are derived in Russia, the Ukraine, and Australia.
The Australian dollar is up 29.3 percent against its U.S. counterpart in 2009 to date and while Krause sales fell at the climax of the global banking liquidity crisis in the second half of 2008, they are improving as they are for the industry.
"We like to see in our industry a weaker dollar as an ongoing standard," said Richard Brown, president of Krause and also chairman of the Global Small Enterprise Committee for the Association of Equipment Manufacturers, headquartered in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
"We look to export more and more as the dollar weakens."