Interview with Marion Calmer, CEO, Calmer Corn Heads, Alpha, Ill.

Frustrated by seeing his invention bastardized at two major-lines, corn grower/researcher Marion Calmer set out to start his own specialty equipment business — one in which every customer is given his cell phone during harvest and invited to call him.

"Calmer Corn Heads is an innovator in developing ideas to improve the productivity of corn harvesting and to reduce header loss while improving the residue management of the corn stalks.

"We have the smallest corn head market share, but we have the newest ideas. Our place right now is more about coming into the market with products that make those final adjustments that let the corn head really perform in the field."

"Our original claim to fame was the narrow-row corn head, as we invented the first 15-inch corn head known to mankind. We are also on target to build the world's first 12-inch corn head in 2012. But I think we're going to be better known for our ability to size the corn stalk and reduce the trash intake to the combines.

"We've been in the manufacturing business since 2002, when we introduced a kit that would convert a corn head to 15-inch rows. About 2 years later, we started taking older corn heads and actually modifying them in our shop to single-chain corn heads. That experience then spawned the concept of the trash reduction kits. We followed with a six-toothed gathering chain and drive sprocket and stripper plates. We then introduced a stalk roll with a revolving window, followed by the BT crusher and then the BT chopper for sizing corn residue.

A New Company Emerges from the Dark Days

There are a lot of examples of inventors who endured dark days before setting forth on their own entrepreneurial venture.

Calmer Corn Heads Founder Marion Calmer had not one, but two, sets of "dark days" before making the decision to hang out his own shingle. On two occasions, he had contracts inked with major-lines, expecting to see his single-chain corn head mass-produced by the majors.

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"We're a true niche business and the majors have respected the patents on our systems. What'll be interesting to see is if they'll stand on the sidelines and let the narrow row corn market develop, or if they'll come in and try to build it. Historically, the majors have taken a wait-and-see attitude. Once something looks like it'll be a sure thing, they'll step in and grab market share."

On-Farm Research

"It's actually our on-farm research and the ideas tested there that spawned the development of the company. I started doing the on-farm research in 1985 after visiting with Herman Warsaw and seeing his record corn crop of 370 bushels growing in the field. We started with a simple nitrogen study. The next year, we started looking at row spacings in beans. We just kept increasing the amount of on-farm research we were doing.

"In the late '80s, we started looking at 30-inch corn vs. 36-inch corn and a neighbor and I ran side by side for about 5 years. We could see that there was about a 4-5 bushel increase by going to 30-inch rows.

"I was on the speaking circuit, covering residue management, planter attachments and no-tillage. When I was in the thumb area of Michigan, one of the innovative farmers from Huron County asked what would happen if we went to row spacings less than 30 inches. I couldn't answer him, so I came home and in 1994 did research of row spacings less than 30 inches apart. That's when we first saw the big advantage to going to 20- and 15-inch rows."

Dealer Network Evolving

"We're in the infancy stages of learning how to adopt a dealership network. We have about 20 Case IH and John Deere dealers we currently work with. I like to stay in close contact with my customers. If I'm doing something wrong, I want to know about it right away.

"As we continue to grow, we will need a strong dealership network because we can't handle the supply and demand ourselves.

"In addition to learning about the need for the dealer's profit margin, we've also learned how important it is to educate the dealer on the performance of the product. Dealership training is critical so they can train their customers.

"Sometimes we have more trouble when a dealer installs the kit than we do when a farmer installs it. Most problems stem from the dealer not taking the time to explain to the farmer how it's supposed to work and at what speeds to run."

More Sales Opportunities for Dealers

"On the future of 15-inch heads, I can't say because, at least at the moment, the rate of adoption appears to be determined by how aggressively I pursue that market.

"The biggest indicator that narrow row corn adoption is on the rise is the fact that Deere is now selling an 18-row 20-inch header. Deere's presence in South America has made them aware of the adoption that's already taken place there and that the trend in the U.S. is not far behind.

"Deere has a minimum level of corn heads at a given size that they must be able to sell or they won't bring them down the assembly line. Things will go very fast now that a major and a dealer network is out there backing it."

"There will be good money in it for dealers. If they sell someone a 20-inch planter instead of a 30-inch planter, that's more row units — and more sales and service per foot of toolbar. In one fell swoop, a farmer that moves from 12-row 30 to 18-row 20 will give the dealer a 50% higher sale in planters and corn heads.

Calmer Ag Research Center

Calmer also operates one of the largest independent farmer-run, non-funded research centers in the nation.

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"In our 15 years of running the narrow row clinics, 90% who attend and purchase the equipment stay with it. I'm scared that the adoption of narrower corn could go right by us as a company because we're not currently in a position to build all the corn heads it'll take. I've got 3 pages of farmers and dealers that want to buy corn heads from us but we can't build them all."

What's Next?

"We've have an outstanding record with our users, but I take all problems personally — I'm emotionally tied to the farmer. I know what it's like to break down on a weekend with 200 acres to go and rain in the forecast. That, plus the fact that I can be content making 20 quality corn heads vs. 200 so-so ones, are reasons why I'm not a very good CEO.

"We're getting close to discussions about mass production and making a big investment in manufacturing facilities, but I always want to get every last issue worked out of our product first. We grade ourselves every year and we haven't yet had a post-harvest meeting where I've been able to turn to the employees and say, 'We got it right in all categories.' Maybe I'm dreaming, but I'm optimistic that I've got a group of people in place that we'll be able to look back on the fall of 2012 or the fall of 2013 and say we got it right.

"For the company to take off, I'm going to need somebody else in the CEO chair. Somebody that can manage the people, manage the supply chain and properly gear us up with the expertise to manufacture on a larger scale. I'm much better at being the innovator and working one-on-one with the farmers than being the CEO of a multi-million dollar company.

"One farmer called and said, 'Marion, keep up the good work — I don't know what we'd do if guys like you and Greg Sauder (Precision Planting) didn't come along to fix some of the screw-ups the majors make. We're spending big dollars for all the stuff from the majors and it doesn't work right, and it takes little guys like you to come along, tell us what's wrong with it and how to make it work.'

Bigger & Faster Trend Highlights Corn Heads Importance, Sales for Dealers

Calmer discusses the the ongoing trends in corn head size and speed.

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"So maybe the next chapter of Calmer Corn Heads is not to be a mass producer, but to upgrade new, mass produced corn heads with the finishing touches to make them work a little better."

A New Company Emerges from Dark Days

There are a lot of examples of inventors who endured dark days before setting forth on their own entrepreneurial venture.

Calmer Corn Heads Founder Marion Calmer had not one, but two, sets of "dark days" before making the decision to hang out his own shingle. On two occasions, he had contracts inked with major-lines, expecting to see his single-chain corn head mass-produced by the majors.

But his invention faced the proverbial "not-invented-here" obstacle at both manufacturers, and an uphill battle with engineers who resented that an outsider might have developed a better design.

He had assumed that they'd take what he'd invented and make it better. "Instead," he says, "they took my toy and broke it, and then I had to go pick up the pieces."

Upon the dissolution of the first agreement, he immediately signed on with another. But the end result was similar, Calmer says, naming engineers who spent more time fighting his invention than examining its feasibility and stringing things along to where it failed to meet the manufacturer's internal ROI requirements.

"I learned first-hand that just because something is a good idea doesn't mean it will be mass-produced."

Narrow-Row Corn Requires Wider Thinking

Had America's horses been a little less girth, the movement toward narrower-row corn might not have seen the uphill battle it has. "The 44-inch paradigm was there forever, and it's because 44 inches was the width of the Belgian horse," says Marion Calmer, CEO Calmer Corn Heads.

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So Calmer saw Plan A and Plan B both fail. The side manufacturing business he'd started was doing only $20,000 per year. He had outgrown the farm shed and had to get bigger or get out, a decision that led him to purchase a closed Ford New Holland dealership to operate as an assembly operation and warehouse.

Calmer recalled the fall of 2006. "We came home from the Farm Progress Show and we'd finished building corn heads. All the checks had been cashed and we still faced more than $200,000 in bills — with the season already over." Going to the bank wasn't an option; an inventive concept doesn't provide collateral.

Still, the company managed to struggle along until December, when Calmer's annual corn head seminars paid off. "A guy who had seen us at the show walked in to one of our seminars and ordered two corn heads. We paid our bills before the end of the year — that was how close we were to shutting down. But we've been just straight up ever since."

The big leap forward, he says, came with the introduction of the BT stalk roll. "That was what brought us out of the hole and to where we started to make good money. After a lot of lean years, we now expect to be relatively profitable every year."