By: Peter Johnson
Source: Great Falls Tribune

Torgerson's farm implement company sent two of its service technicians to Australia last fall for a month each in a new business-exchange program.

"We hated to lose two them but felt the exchange was a way to reward experienced techs who'd done a good job for us that allowed them the experience of going through a harvest in an area with different terrain and crops," said Joe Hafliger, Torgerson's general manager for Great Falls and Havre. "We think that knowledge can help us."

The dealership has six locations across Montana.

Torgerson's has contracted the last five years with Peter O'Connell, an Australian expert on combines. He spends four to six weeks in Montana during harvest time. O'Connell, who worked for Case Implements before becoming an independent consultant, works in the field in Montana and gives combine clinics for farmers and dealer techs, salesmen and parts workers.

With that as an impetus, Torgerson's hit on the idea of exchanging techs with an Australian implement dealer, Intersales, with each getting help from the other during busy harvest time.

Isaac Drugge of Havre, a Torgerson's technician for seven years, went first; departing in mid-October after the Montana harvest was done. Lowell Harris, who's worked 11 years as a technician with the company in Great Falls, followed Drugge to Australia a few weeks later and spent most of November there.

Harris discussed the highlights, challenges and idiosyncrasies of his journey "down under" recently with an Ag Outlook reporter and his Torgerson's colleagues.

He said he left Montana not too long after a busy harvest season for New South Wales, in southeastern Australia.

"The place where I worked gets a lot more rainfall than Montana, about 20 inches there, compared to 12 to 15 inches in most of Montana," he said. "It has more moderate temperatures without much snow or cold in the winter."

For those reasons, the harvest already was going strong there even though it was the equivalent of May here, and Australians planted 50 percent canola and 50 percent hard red wheat.

Hafliger noted that canola planting peaked in Montana in the late 1980s, and was mostly phased out because there isn't enough moisture here.

Some producers in parts of Montana, including the Fairfield Bench, still grow canola, he said, so the knowledge Torgerson techs learned from the Australians about planting and harvesting it will be helpful to Montana producers.

Harris found Australian producers have implement dealers do more of the routine, recommended maintenance on combines and other equipment than Montana growers.

He also worked with producers in the field, observing harvesting, troubleshooting problems and making repairs.

Doing so, he got more concentrated training time than he gets in Montana, said Torgerson's Service Manager Brent Otness.

"We were operating with fewer techs in Montana for parts of two months," Otness said, "but they came back better trained."

Harris observed several interesting facets of farm harvesting in Australia.

Australian grain carts, the wheeled containers that trucks use to haul grain from fields, were about three times the size of grain carts in America, he said, because producers have fewer trucks there. They called the monster carts "mother bins."

Large trees are allowed to grow in the middle of fields, since Australian conservation rules prevent farmers from chopping them down. Producers simply plant and harvest around them.

He saw a few large, flightless emu birds in fields, and even spotted four-foot kangaroos. He saw one highly poisonous brown snake, about the size of a large rattler.

Harris visited Australia about a decade earlier, and said that previous experience made it easier for him to follow the fast accent and differing vocabulary of Australians.

Even though they bought their Case combines from America, Australians called them headers, the term that Americans use for the specialized removable cutters that fit on the fronts of combines. Australians call the headers "fronts."

Despite the itchy dust of harvesting, most Australian farmers wore shorts along with bush hats similar to the one worn by the Crocodile Dundee movie character from the 1980s, he said.

That was quite a change from Montana, said Harris, who kept wearing a baseball cap and jeans like most Montana producers.

"It was a great experience, and I got a lot from it," Harris said. "There wasn't much time to play. I was busy working during their harvest."

Hafliger said Torgerson's is pleased with the exchange, too.

"We're hoping Intersales sends us a couple of Australian technicians during our busy harvest time next August or September," he said.