Mechanizing Potato Farming

Spudnik Equipment Company

Spudnik Equipment Company, LLC, the leading potato equipment manufacturer in North America, is about to get even bigger. Headquartered in Blackfoot, Idaho, the self-proclaimed potato capital of the world, this company is in the middle of a massive expansion that will add another 160,000 square feet of space to its operations. This construction project, coming on the heels of a previous expansion in 2018, involves additions to its fabrication, paint, and assembly facilities.

“Business is very good. We continue to see growth year over year. It’s exciting and a testament to the people who work at Spudnik and their ability to create great products that our customers want to have,” says Sales Support and Marketing Manager Andrew Blight.

Spudnik has come a long way from the late 1950s when it was founded by a pair of brothers who were tired of traditional methods of loading potatoes in and out of storage. While the company also makes equipment for sugar beets and other crops, the emphasis of the firm has always been on potatoes. This is not a surprise, given its location.

“More potatoes are grown in Bingham County, the county that Blackfoot is situated in, than any other county in the United States or probably North America, for that matter,” he says.

A fortuitous combination of weather and soil conditions makes the region perfect for growing potatoes. Even with that advantage, Spudnik’s success stems largely from its culture of innovation. It prides itself on being an early adapter of technology and has a long history of new product launches. Most products are designed specifically for planting, harvesting, transporting, and storing potatoes, and the company also sells replacement and service parts as well as used equipment.

Given the company’s presence today, its origins are rather humble. Back in the late 1950s, while working on an Idaho farm, brothers Leo and Carl Hobbs decided there had to be a better way to load potatoes.

“Because the potato is a very delicate product, you can’t [move them] with a front-end loader. All of that work has to be done by hand, which is extremely time-consuming, labor-intensive, and strenuous,” Blight admits.

With the blessing of the farmer for whom they worked, the Hobbs brothers did some tinkering and came up with a scooper machine that made for much easier potato handling. A product with a swinging boom for neatly piling the spuds came soon after.

From these developments, a company was founded by Leo, Carl, and the farmer who employed them. The year was 1958. Inspired by the Soviet satellite Sputnik, which was then making headlines and ‘spud,’ the colloquial name for potatoes, they cheekily named the fledgling firm Spudnik.

The farmer soon departed from the company, but the Hobbs brothers carried on. They established a tradition of pumping revenues back into the company to fund product research and development. The investment strategy has paid off greatly over the decades.

“It takes resources to grow the company and come up with new products,” notes Blight, “but that’s what builds the company and grows it into the future.”

Spudnik soon developed a reputation as an innovative company that was always keen on expanding its product line. The company grew and began adding locations, and the new products kept coming. In 1974, it introduced a popular self-unloading truck bed.

In addition to original products, Spudnik demonstrated its innovative culture in other ways. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, it embraced technology to streamline office operations, improve designs, and move the company forward. These advanced tools included three-dimensional computer-aided design (3D CAD) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) programs.

“It has always been our business philosophy to leverage technology wherever we can to improve the products and services we create for our customers. Spudnik started using CAD in 1986. We were the first company in our industry to [utilize this program]. We introduced ERP in 1992,” says Blight. “As large a company as we are trying to manage the business without these tools would be crazy.”

New products and a forward-looking approach drove growth. In 1997, ground broke on a new sixty-thousand-square-foot facility for producing field equipment. A year later, it unveiled a new field equipment line, including two-, three-, and four-row harvesters and four-row ‘windrowers’ for harvesting and depositing the crops in rows. These product introductions propelled Spudnik to the front ranks of the North American farm field equipment market.

Never content to rest on its laurels, the company continued to refine existing equipment and emphasize research and development. The year 2000 marked both a new millennium and new markets for Spudnik, as it entered the planter sector with four-, six-, and eight-row planters.

There were also changes in ownership. In the late 1990s, Spudnik began working with Grimme, a huge agricultural equipment company based in Germany. This partnership was formalized in 2001. The initial idea was that the firms would join forces to develop products. Around the same time, Spudnik extended its reach into the eastern United States and Canada by adding new dealerships in these regions.

By 2003, the company was employing roughly 220 people. At this point, it became entirely owned by the Grimme Group of companies, an arrangement that has also benefited Spudnik, which now sells Grimme equipment alongside its own products.

Following its acquisition, Spudnik continued to introduce new equipment, including the high-performance 6140 series windrower in 2004. The company also remained devoted to technological tools, including computer numerical control (CNC) mills, lathes, and laser cutters. In 2014, it introduced a new crop cart.

Spudnik celebrated its sixtieth anniversary in 2018. That same year, it underwent an enormous expansion. “We put two new buildings up. One is our shipping facility. When we’re done manufacturing our machinery, it can go straight into a shipping area, get torn down, get loaded on a truck, and head to its final destination. Prior to that, we had a shipping area outside that was in the weather,” states Production Director Gary Dee Van Orden. “The second building is our service and repair facility.”

Each building was 100 feet wide and 167 feet long. While impressive, this expansion will be dwarfed by the company’s ongoing construction work, which is scheduled to be completed in 2022.

Spudnik employs roughly 350 people, up from 300 last year. The company also recently purchased a Blackfoot-based company that makes self-unloading trailers. Growth is being driven by the increasing popularity of the company’s wares, and the scooper, albeit much modified over the decades, remains a flagship product for its ability to gently unload potatoes from storage.

While Spudnik has a website and social media profiles, it relies on face to face methods of promotion. “The biggest thing that moves our product is feet on the ground. We have salesmen and dealers around the country who are visiting and talking to our customers, the farmers, directly,” Blight says.

The company has also been hosting open houses for nearly fifteen years. These events are held in January, to coincide with a major agricultural potato show in the region.

“In 2019, we had over eight hundred customers here in our facility. It was an opportunity for them to get to know us a little better, to see our facilities, see some of the capabilities we have, and to rub shoulders with other growers and have an informal get-together with customers,” he says.

At the most recent event, clients were given guided tours of the Spudnik plant and could witness demonstrations of a new, twelve-row planting system. Other equipment – including a twelve-row cultivator and six-row harvester – was displayed as well. Throughout the day, caterers served fresh-cut, hot, potato fries to visitors who were also treated to a steak and chicken dinner in the evening.

As for the future, expect to see new products and continued diversification into equipment for sugar beets and other crops. But there are no plans to change the company’s focus.

“Potatoes are what got us to this point and will always be a mainstay in our product offering,” states Blight.

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August 15, 2020, 5:53 AM EDT