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Auger-steer invention drives farm family’s business success

Diversifying into manufacturing creates more opportunity for the Toews family, but there have been many lessons along the way

For Dean, Devin, Darren and father Bernie, on-farm manufacturing provides a kind of balance. But make no mistake… this is a farm first, with all the challenges that implies.

It was 2008 and things just weren’t working out for Bernie Toews. From his tractor cab, he’d tried again and again to manoeuvre an auger around a tight corner on the family farm near MacGregor, an hour and a half west of Winnipeg, and it just wasn’t going to happen.

Now, Toews was backing the half mile up the farm lane so he could try from a different direction. And he was thinking.

Toews had always known his way around a shop, repairing machinery and coming up with better ways, so it didn’t surprise anyone that by the time he got back out to the road, he was already noodling an idea for a hydraulic steering system for augers.

What’s more surprising is the story of how he commercialized it.

Lots of farmers have lots of eureka flashes, but Toews’ auger steering system has become the main product line of Triple Star Manufacturing, the sideline business Toews had launched from his small farm shop in the early 1980s. Sales of the system now stretch across Canada and in Australia, the U.S. and Europe.

It helped to be a farmer. “We needed to have something that would follow the tractor tracks instead of trying to cut corners,” Toews explains. “Ease of aligning the spouts in the top of the bin was the other quest we had, but just not being able to get into small yard sites is why I developed it.”

Toews patented the design in 2008 and later bolstered his lineup with another patented invention — a quad steer kit that modifies a large auger with two wheels on each side for better stability.

Yet it also took serious inventiveness to make it all work together with the farm which Toews manages with sons Dean, Devin and Darren. With the two enterprises, plus a custom harvesting and strip tilling business, there isn’t a lot of slack for the family.

The hard work of sales

At the start, Dean and Bernie began going to farm shows as well as to dealerships with the new Auger-Steer, but it was a harder sell at the beginning than they had expected. The concept was new, says Dean.

“A lot of the ground work was talking to farmers at farm shows and seeing them wanting the feature but maybe getting some resistance from brothers or business partners about whether it was worth spending money for a ‘gadget,’” Dean says. “We helped settle the argument by offering a ‘pay-only-if-satisfied’ deal.”

It was the right idea. After the farmers used the Auger-Steer once, they were sold, Dean says. “We never took the product back from a farm… and those stories helped sell more kits.”

What it takes to make a good idea into a good business, Bernie says, are attention to detail, discipline, and no end of persistence. photo: Sandy Black

The Toewses found it even tougher to get dealers interested. They said it seemed too small a product line to get excited about, and suggested the Toewses focus on selling direct to the farm.

But the Toewses took a different approach instead, going directly to auger manufacturers to sell them the Auger-Steer as an add-on product. “We felt the best marketing point for this product would be at the purchase point of a new auger,” Dean says. “So we approached all the auger manufacturers, thinking they would be all over this value-added product,” says Dean.

That turned out to be an education too. “We had low response from them at the beginning,” Dean says. The auger makers said they’d never heard their farmers complain about manoeuvrability. And they were worried about liability too.

Sometimes, the Toewses would get a hopeful signal. Somebody at a manufacturing company would suddenly see the light. But just like on the farm, the dialogue with the company would fizzle out. “It was frustrating for us,” Dean admits. And the conclusion was inescapable. Their Triple Star would have to keep selling to farmers, one unit at a time, to build demand before either the manufacturers or the dealers would come on board.

Finally, in 2016, a large auger manufacturer approached them about offering the Auger-Steer as a factory-installed option. The partnership turned out to be a good one; the Auger-Steer was enthusiastically promoted, and sales increased as a result. Although Triple Star is now at the end of their exclusive agreement with the manufacturer, the Toewses hope to continue supplying them and other auger manufacturers as well. They have also continued to sell direct to farmers who don’t have a local dealer, and to dealers as well.

“Ultimately,” says Dean, “the goal is to sell to all auger manufacturers, and that all augers over 80 feet long will have steering as a standard feature.”

A farm to adapt

The Toewses grow roughly 4,200 acres of corn, soybeans, edible beans and wheat and are committed minimum-till farmers. They got into corn in a big way in the early 2000s and added soybeans five years later thanks to the release of earlier maturing varieties.

The farm takes head space too. An ongoing issue, for instance, has been soil erosion that they were trying to solve by integrating fall rye cover crops after low-residue soybeans and edible beans. Six years ago, they added strip tillage as a way to get better fertilizer placement with minimal tillage in their corn crops. It takes ongoing management, monitoring and assessment — the sorts of jobs that Bernie believes are crucial to the family’s success.

Triple Star Manufacturing began life making row markers for drills and air seeders at the request of a local equipment dealer, who had seen the row markers that Bernie had built for himself and thought there would be a good market for them.

“There were some existing units out there, and they’d been around since the ’30s or ’40s so it wasn’t a new concept, but we made them better and adaptable to the newer machinery,” says Bernie. “Our design had working hydraulics instead of just pulleys and chains and cables, and we made them much larger, up to 65 feet.”

The Toewses continued to sell lots of markers worldwide until technology like autosteer and GPS came along and demand dwindled. It’s what happens, and for the Toewses, the success of both the farm and the manufacturing business has always hinged on being aware of changing trends in the industry, and the family isn’t afraid to take advantage of them and adopt new technologies or design new ways to help make them and other farmers more efficient, productive and profitable.

Sometimes that means selling other companies’ products, like the line of grain cart scales, platform scales and livestock scales they distribute in Canada for Central City Scale Inc. It’s a partnership that also grew out of the Toewses’ own custom harvesting business.

x photo: Sandy Black

“In 2002, we bought a grain cart and most farms in Canada didn’t have grain carts at that time,” says Dean. “We wanted to measure what we were growing and also give accurate yields to our customers, so we figured the grain cart was a good place to scale, but when we called around there was nobody in Canada that dealt with grain cart scales or had any knowledge of them.”

Finally, in 2004, they found a company in Nebraska, also family owned and operated, that specializes in scales for grain and livestock. Soon, a new partnership was born, which led to new products for Triple Star Manufacturing. “We custom mount scales on grain carts and fertilizer spreaders,” says Dean. “It’s led to us making new products related to scales as well.”

In 2013, Triple Star added an app called Agrimatics, developed by Bitstrata in Saskatoon, to its product line-up, which links the grain cart scale to an iPad or iPhone for data recording. “We knew from a sales standpoint that Agrimatics would be a great addition to the grain cart scales, so we were able to be on the ground floor with Bitstrata by using it on our grain cart,” says Dean. “We were able to help with initial features from the perspective of farmers, custom harvesters and from scale sales experience.”

A talented team evolves

Darren, 31 is the technology expert of the farm team, and keeps the GPS systems operating and updated. He is currently setting up Climate FieldView — a digital field management system — in the farm’s equipment to streamline the transfer of field data about planting, spraying, strip tilling and harvesting.

Darren is also the production manager for Triple Star, and is responsible for ordering supplies and materials. Part of the ongoing engineering work that Darren does includes designing different mounts for the auger steer product to fit the many different augers available.

All of this, plus four young kids — Lexus (seven), Eve (four), Harper (three) and Spencer (eight months) — means that Darren and wife, Christine, lead busy lives.

Although in any business there is crossover, especially at the height of the farm seasons or during times of peak manufacturing demand, each member of the Toews family has evolved into their roles with the various farm enterprises, each finding their niche according to their strengths, skills and interests, which makes for a high-functioning, flexible team.

Middle brother, Devin (39) is more heavily involved in the farm production, making a lot of the crop decisions and, being mechanically inclined, he keeps the planter, combines and everything else operating at peak efficiency. Devin is married to Sonya and has three boys, Dillon (12), Reid (eight) and Davis (three).

Dean’s focus is marketing for Triple Star as well as business management, including being responsible for negotiating land rental and lease arrangements, and communicating with custom harvest clients.

Dean, business manager, checks Triple Star schedules with father Bernie and production manager Darren. Everyone knows their job, and does it. photo: Sandy Black

Dean and his wife, Roxie, also have four children. Ethan (15) is the oldest and already spends quite a few hours helping out with the various farm enterprises. He has three sisters, Shelby (13), Brooklyn (10) and Brandy (six). Roxie does the books for the farm and helps her mother-in-law Edna with the Triple Star books as well.

They have developed communications structures, which includes meeting on a regular basis, although that can mean an informal coffee break before heading out on the seeder, sprayer or combine, or formally sitting down in the office together and taking minutes as they discuss day-to-day operations and future plans and directions.

What’s important is that the family is totally on the same page about where they are going and their vision for the farm and the family.

“We all have different ideas and it’s good to have business partners with different perspectives to test or bounce our ideas off each other. It gives stability,” says Dean. “We have to be on board for all the big decisions and I think that’s where a lot of farms have difficulty — when ideas don’t line up and they can’t work together anymore.

“Something we are all good at is compromising and seeing the bigger picture together. We have similar overall goals for the farm and the little decisions that we make on a piece of equipment or whatever are a small part of the big picture.”

A big part of that picture is making sure that the transition of the farm to the next generation goes more smoothly than the last one. Bernie’s dad wasn’t enthusiastic or encouraging for his kids to farm and encouraged them to do anything but. “It wasn’t a passion of Grandpa Toews, but my dad stuck with it because that’s what he wanted to do,” says Dean. Bernie and Edna eventually bought the farm in 1978.

The next succession

The next succession has already started with incorporation in 2007, when the three farming brothers received shares in the farm. “Dean and I had done some farming separately with separate books, and we rented our own land separately,” says Devin. “When Darren graduated from high school and started looking at farming, we figured it would be a good time to join together. We use the same equipment and run as one farm, and as far as the outlook about succession and how everything would work in the future, we figured it would be better to be in it together.”

The family is also making sure that it puts a process into place that includes non-farming siblings: Jessica (26) who lives with her husband, Jared and three children, Becka, Sadie and Danner in Saskatchewan, and Steven (30) who is an owner/operator truck driver for a Winnipeg transport company. They all agree it is important to treat everyone equitably.

“There is a plan,” says Bernie. “It’s not helter-skelter, we know that they’re going to be a part of the succession as non-participating members. They made a choice to do other things and that’s okay.”

The common thread

The common thread tying all the Toewses’ enterprises together is diversification, which means they will continue to look for opportunities to branch out into new crops and production methods, new manufacturing products and new markets.

It’s their core strategy, believing it’s their way to keep four families working and supported by the farm businesses.

“Triple Star complements the farm and the farm complements Triple Star,” says Dean. “The custom harvesting, strip tilling and planting for our neighbours has been a part of our farm expansion and helped with upgrading and buying machinery.”

Because the investment in machinery and equipment for Triple Star has been gradual, the Toewses have managed to limit their need for outside financing on the manufacturing side, except for a modest line of credit from the local credit union that helps them even out the periods of high and low demand typical of a manufacturing business.

“We haven’t done any multi-million-dollar building projects. It started off in an old 18 ft. x 36 ft. chicken barn with a 10 ft. ceiling in the ’80s, which was the shop at the time and then we built a 36 ft. x 40 ft. building, which is now our office,” says Dean. “Then we built an addition onto that building, which now we’re using for scales and other applications and another 50 ft. x 100 ft. shop. It all belongs to the farm. Triple Star doesn’t own land per se, it’s paying rent to the farm and we go back and forth between the two companies, so when the farm has a bad year, we hope that Triple Star can help out a little more.”

With Auger-Steer selling all over the world, the Toewses found themselves pushed for manpower and space. As a result of the increased sales demand they hired a couple more employees but were limited in space with the buildings on the farm that they had designated for manufacturing. There were times they had to move into the storage shed to do spring preparation because the farm shop was full to the rafters with steering kits. “We were sending kits away for powder painting and then assembling them in the same shop as the welding,” says Dean. “We decided to renovate our old hip-roof dairy barn to a heated assembly building that would stay clean and out of the welding smoke. That was a benefit but it was still too small.”

The search for new solutions

Although the Toewses only employ one person full time on the farm right now, they have had up to three or four. It’s always a challenge, though, to find and retain people in a rural area with the skills they need, especially for the manufacturing side.

It was particularly hard to keep welders going year-round because the demand for the Auger-Steer was seasonal. “With manufacturing we’ll get big orders and be really busy for a while, then it’ll slow down and we were having trouble keeping good welders around with those ups and downs,” says Dean. “We also have a hard time competing for ticketed welders on a salary basis compared to jobs they can get in other industries.”

It’s one of the reasons they have decided to contract out some of the manufacturing processes including laser cutting and painting of the components for the Auger-Steer and focus on product development and expanding markets. “This part we can contract out and just manage the sales and logistics of the product,” says Dean.

Managing their time continues to be one of the greatest challenges, especially with businesses that are both seasonal and demand-driven at the same time. “Individually during harvest season, we’re focused more on the custom side when the weather’s right, but then we are usually answering phones and doing Triple Star business in our trucks and equipment while we’re running around or in the office in the morning before we get going,” says Dean.

“Some days it’s tougher than others when you could be spending more time on Triple Star projects or on farm stuff,” Dean says. “That’s something you weigh out on a daily basis and try to plan ahead as much as we can to get stuff out of the way so it doesn’t become a panic on too many fronts at the same time.”

New opportunities ahead

In hindsight, there were things that took longer than expected, plus some definite learning experiences, but if they had to give advice to other farmers about diversifying into other ventures, it would be to be careful and conscious about each step. “While we have expanded the manufacturing side and scale sales, we have expanded farm ventures as well with custom farming and renting more land,” says Dean.

“While each opportunity is exciting, and it’s fun to expand, there is often another aspect of your operation that can suffer when something new is taken on. It is easy to focus on the opportunity and overlook what you already have going on. “

There will always be growing pains with any business or farm, says Dean, but it’s good to spend extra time to calculate, with business partners, what could be affected by proposed expansions and/or diversification.

“It could be people affected, or finances, or relationships or all of the above,” says Dean. “It is better to take on less and do it well than to take on too much and be stressed all the time and have to retract a venture eventually.”

As an example, the Toewses decided to let some of the farthest land go that they had been renting to focus on the areas that they were wanting to focus more on such as building the Auger-Steer product and custom harvesting.

The Toewses will continue to look for opportunities but they approach each one with a five-year point of view and try not to get tunnel vision about any one particular project, says Dean.

“One of our potential challenges ahead is that we are exclusively tied to one industry,” he says. “Agriculture has always had ups and downs so it is wise to not build your farm business based on the up side only and prepare for the down swings the best you can.”

Agriculture is an exciting, changing business and whether the family looks at it as growers or manufacturers, there will be opportunity for improving technologies and practices to use in both areas, says Dean.

“It was not a bad thing that markers went by the way side as GPS technology took over mechanical marking. It opened up a new industry of opportunity of data management and now autonomous machines,” Dean says. “So, whether it is a simple steering add-on product to make mobility more efficient and safer for augers, or management of product weights through scale equipment, I believe there will be opportunity going forward in those areas and others we have not thought of yet.”

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Angela Lovell

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