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Innovative thinking propels Saskatchewan agricultural manufacturers

June 19, 2017: The Honey brothers needed a bigger, better tractor to work larger swaths of land at their farm in Bracken in the southwest corner of Saskatchewan. The problem was they did not have the money to buy one.

The Honey brothers needed a bigger, better tractor to work larger swaths of land at their farm in Bracken in the southwest corner of Saskatchewan. The problem was they didn't have the money to buy one.

As it turns out, that wasn't a problem at all. Glenn and Greg Honey instead built their own 425-horsepower tractor back in the late 1970s. Soon they were building rod weeders and combine headers, too.

“What happens is then the neighbour wants one, then other people in the area want one, and then all of a sudden farmers across the province want one, and the brothers didn't have the manufacturing infrastructure to support that demand,” says Jamie Pegg, general manager with Honey Bee Manufacturing.

Within a few years, the Honey brothers had moved operations from a Quonset on their farm to a repurposed factory in Frontier, Sask. Today Honey Bee Manufacturing is one of dozens of success stories from innovative Saskatchewan farmers who saw a need and fulfilled it themselves by developing and ultimately manufacturing agricultural equipment.

‘It's that old saying that necessity is the mother of invention, and that holds very much true here in Saskatchewan,' says Leah Olson, president of the Agricultural Manufacturers of Canada, based in Regina.

“When you look at the types of equipment that will help make a farmer successful here, it usually has to be designed, made and patented in Saskatchewan, which is why some of our members are global leaders.”

To that end, Saskatchewan is a key piece of Canada's agricultural manufacturing industry, which exports $1.8 billion worth of goods annually.

‘It's that old saying that necessity is the mother of invention, and that holds very much true here in Saskatchewan,' says Leah Olson, president of the Agricultural Manufacturers of Canada, based in Regina.

“Of that total, coming out of Saskatchewan is $240 million,” she says of the diverse manufacturers scattered across the province, many of them specialized niche operations known as short-line manufacturers.

“Manufacturing in Saskatchewan is becoming increasingly important, and we punch above our weight because so many of the short-line manufacturers are based in communities of less than 10,000 people.”

Aside from Honey Bee, the list of companies to find success in Saskatchewan includes Bourgault, Schulte, Morris, Doepker, Seed Hawk and more.

For its part, Honey Bee manufactures combine headers, swathers and rod weeders for not just Saskatchewan farmers, but those across Canada and in more than two dozen other nations, including the United States. But other manufacturers might specialize in augers, grain storage, rock pickers and an assortment of other equipment conceived of, designed and manufactured by Saskatchewan farmers.

“The mainline manufacturers — John Deere, Case IH and AGCO — look to our industry as the innovator,” Olson says. “For the most part, there's a very good relationship because they recognize that the products we produce are leading edge.”

That's not to say the little guys here in the province are not in fierce competition with the big players globally. But the secret to their success boils down to that old idea of building a better mousetrap — or in the case of Honey Bee — a better header.

“The ag manufacturing community as a whole cares about the farmer, and within that we have relationships that work with larger manufacturers,” Pegg says. “But a short-line piece of equipment has to be better than the OEM's (original equipment manufacturer) equipment because if it's not, the farmer will just use the OEM equipment, so we're in direct competition in a lot of ways.”

A lot is at stake, too.

Dozens of communities depend on the success of these short-line manufacturers, he adds.

“The population of the town of Frontier is about 300,” he says, adding that Honey Bee also employs people from neighbouring communities, often with less than 100 residents.

“We have 200 employees, and economically outside of the farming community, we are by far the largest employer down here.”

These are more than just manufacturing jobs, too.

“Our impact in terms of employment is very broad,” Olson says. “To have a manufacturing facility, for example, you need people in IT, human resources and marketing, in addition to the typical administration and manufacturing roles required.”

Despite its size, importance and reputation among the global agriculture industry, this segment of the province's economy has quietly flourished for the most part.

“People in this province are mostly unaware of the fact that a lot of our small towns are these centres for innovative manufacturing,” Pegg says.

While agricultural manufacturing might fly under the radar, particularly in major urban centres, the provincial government is certainly aware of its importance.

“There's very good government support,” Pegg says. “If you look at initiatives like STEP — the Saskatchewan Trade and Export Partnership — they do an absolutely excellent job of promoting Saskatchewan business in the province, across Canada and around the world.”

In fact, STEP — a non-profit partnership between government and the private sector — is an industry-leading initiative that other provinces are emulating, he adds.

While others may be following in their footsteps elsewhere, the provincial government and ag manufacturing companies in Saskatchewan remain firmly focused on innovation and, in turn, growing revenues at home and abroad, Olson says.

“As the world population continues to grow, and farmers continue to look for more efficient ways to farm, the future for our industry looks very strong.”

This story was created by Content Works, Postmedia's commercial content division, on behalf of Saskatchewan's Ministry of the Economy.

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