Necessity may be the mother of invention, but it's passion that takes an idea all the way to the global marketplace.
Assiniboia area farmer Dave Dietrich has plenty of passion—as well as a commitment to other farmers who find themselves in the same situation he found himself in 1998; when he tried harvesting a new variety of lentils with a brand new set of crop lifters, he discovered he had absolutely nothing in the hopper for his effort. Not only did the lifters take hours to install on his header, they'd actually pounded the lentils deeper into the ground.
Dietrich's need to salvage the crop drove him to his farm shop. After trial and error, he came up with a design that forms the basis of the Flexxifinger Pulse Crop Lifter, and ended up with a harvest of 38 bushels to the acre on his own field that year. The design incorporated flexible nylon fingers that could gently lift low-lying crops without breaking them, as well as a Quick-Detach (QD™) nut assembly system that made the lifters easy to put on and easy to remove—in minutes rather than hours.
Dietrich knew he had stumbled onto something. He continued to make improvements for a couple of years, testing his invention on different harvests and making adjustments where necessary. Then he applied for a patent. He shopped his idea around to a number of farm equipment manufacturers to no avail, and then realized that if his invention was ever going to become a useable product available to fellow farmers, he had to manufacture and market it himself.
Enlisting the services of a friend who used to run a machine shop business, Dietrich made about 10 sets of lifters in 2004 and sold them to nearby farmers who'd seen how they worked on Dietrich's land. Dietrich believed in his invention so completely, he told those farmers he wouldn't cash their cheques until they had used the product and that they could get their money back if they weren't happy.
"Nobody asked for their money back," chuckles Dietrich. "In 2005, we made 130 sets, and in 2006, we decided to take the Flexxifinger to the Farm Progress Show in Regina and enter it as a new invention. We won first place!"
Flexxifinger continued to operate out of Dietrich's farm shop until 2008, when the operation was moved to Assiniboia. Dietrich agrees it's been good for the town's economy. "But there's been an economic impact on farmers across North America who have bought our products, as well as on employees, suppliers, and those who deliver and sell our product," Dietrich explains, and offers one example of many similar testimonials he's received.
"One producer in Arizona called me in a panic. He had 1,100 acres of durum crop he expected was in excess of 100 bushels to the acre, but he tried every crop lifter he could get his hands on, and nothing worked. After our senior product support person met with him, we sent him our FlexxiFloat™ Crop Lifter system. In the end, he managed to get between 40-60 bushels to the acre more than he had on the 700 acres he had already combined. He also managed to recover grain from the straw left in the field. That's what I mean by 'economic impact'. Many of the farmers who have purchased our product have made about 50—100 per cent more profit on their farm than they would have before they bought our product."
Dietrich places great value on meeting producers' needs. With a staff of about 18, including R&D, producer support specialists and administration/accounting staff, Flexxifinger manufactures a variety of products. "We have nylon fingers, all-metal lifters, and hybrids—depending on what people have asked for, soil types and conditions in different areas and countries, and crops. The one thing that hasn't changed is the attachment and detachment method that enables producers to make rapid changeovers," he says. The newest product is the Flexxifinger Corn Harvest Pan™ that works for both corn and sunflower crops with a simple changeover kit. Dietrich and his team have also signed an agreement with an inventor of a new design of rock picker—the Flexxifinger® Quicker Picker—that fits on the front of a skid steer and that removes dirt and straw from rocks before they're placed in a rock pile.
Product promotion has been as critical as product innovation. "We sell something producers don't need until a storm hits at a critical time, but when it does, they need us immediately. I realized dealers won't stock product until farmers request it, so I decided we had to take the product to shows, talk to farmers, answer their questions, and get directly involved with farmers to design a product that would give them a positive experience," says Dietrich. Flexxifinger participated in almost 30 farm shows across North America last year, and in the past have attended shows in China and the massive Agrotechnica show in Germany. Flexxifinger has also received visitors from all over the world at the Assiniboia plant.
Dietrich's personal touch has given Flexxifinger the market edge it needed to grow. The company still sells directly to farmers, but as a result of interaction with producers and show promotion—and the many awards won in the process—demand for the product has grown. Flexxifinger now has more than 400 dealers across North America and Australia, as well as end-users in New Zealand, South Africa, Israel, Kenya, Zaire, Greece, Italy, Switzerland, Denmark, Scotland, France, Russia, Bulgaria, and other countries in Europe.
Success isn't without challenge, however. One of the biggest is shipping out of rural Saskatchewan. In 2014, when weather events across western Canada sparked demand, Flexxifinger was selling so much product, couriers were at capacity. "We couldn't ship all we could sell, so our own staff started trailering goods to Calgary to deliver to dealers. And it's not easy to get air freight out of Saskatchewan. Lifters headed for Bulgaria first had to be driven to Winnipeg, unloaded, and then trucked to Calgary so they could get on a plane because the price to get them to Calgary directly was higher than via Winnipeg. That's an issue," says Dietrich.
The Assiniboia location works well in every other regard. "Some of our costs may be higher, but building costs and taxes are probably less than in the city. Being in Assiniboia also means we can always have our ears to the ground, and we are in the heart of the people who use the product. People can also get personalized service because we're a small town, and that includes our staff and our customers," says Dietrich, who then adds with a chuckle, "It also means we are at least an hour away from the closest traffic light."
For more information on Flexxifinger and its product lines, visitwww.flexxifinger.com.