Uncovering the Hesston Story
The small size of Hesston, Kan., belies its global impact on agriculture.
By Richard Banks | Photos By Rob Lagerstrom
For 65 years, this rural burg on the eastern edge of the Great Prairie has been home to a brand that shares its name and is fertile ground for the development of game-changing agricultural machines.
On the following pages and on our website, myFarmLife.com, we examine the underlying reasons for such a remarkable string of innovations. We take a comprehensive look, from the days when the company consisted of three survivors of the Dust Bowl to its status now as a division of AGCO Corporation, whose products are used and prized worldwide.
We discovered several common themes that thread through the history of this manufacturing facility, one of which is a focus on producer-oriented solutions. Whether as a small company or as part of a global network, Hesston continues to be synonymous with significant leaps in efficiency today and is laying the groundwork to develop additional innovations for generations to come.
During the Dust Bowl years, a “hill” on an otherwise flat stretch of the Great Prairie was often a piece of farm machinery buried by the era’s black blizzards of blowing topsoil, then deserted due to a hole in the social fabric called the Great Depression. Folks did what they could to survive, and a young Kansan named Lyle Yost helped make ends meet by scouring the countryside around his family’s farm for these mounds of dirt and steel.
“He was as young as 14,” says his daughter Susan, “and as soon as Dad learned how to drive, he would take the truck out into the countryside and look for [abandoned] farm equipment.” Yost, who passed away earlier this year, would excavate what he found and bring it home, where he and his father would use it for spare parts or repair it for sale. “Not only did Dad learn how to build and rebuild [farm equipment], but he got acquainted with farmers,” Susan says. “He learned from them and found out what they needed. The idea of Hesston Corp. was planted when he was a teenager. I don’t think he knew the direction, but he knew that he had a calling, which was to help farmers.”
That direction became clear years later when he took on a problem that afflicted practically every farmer and harvester who owned a combine back in the day. Unloading just took too much time. Yost’s contemporaries used shovels and gravity to get the grain out of the bin, losing valuable time to get the grain up and out of harm’s way.
Yost, however, had an idea for a better way to move that grain, and after a particularly difficult harvest in 1947 and with memories of Dust Bowl storms still fresh, he and blacksmith Adin Holdeman went to work developing his unloading auger design. They made five of them in about a month, Susan recalls, and sent Yost’s cousin Earl Burner out to sell them. “He got back in 3 hours and said he needed 10 more.”
When they returned to the harvest the next summer using their new machine, others witnessed the speed at which the augers unloaded grain, and orders began arriving from as far as Texas and North Dakota. Buoyed by that success, the three men set up an assembly line near their homes in Hesston, and Hesston Manufacturing was born.
More than a half-century later, Yost’s focus on farmer-oriented solutions lives on today. Still located in the small, rural town where it all started, the Hesston facility has gone on to develop some of the most productive machines in agriculture, with the harvesting equipment made there now being sold worldwide.
As a division of AGCO Corporation since 1991, such a culture of innovation has been fostered with the resources of one of the world’s largest agricultural equipment manufacturers. Yet, AGCO knows it’s not all about money and global reach.
Hesston’s success has been driven in part by a dedicated workforce and the stated aim of letting the division’s management and employees pursue new ideas quickly, with fewer layers than in the past. The result is a flood of new products and ground-breaking technologies over the past several years that follow in the tracks of previous innovations, such as that early auger and the Hesston-branded self-propelled windrower and large square baler, all of which radically changed the agricultural landscape.
Recently released new products, such as the Massey Ferguson® 9500 Series combines, auto-steer for windrowers and the Hesston® by Massey Ferguson 2170 XD baler, are part of the first wave of a whole new era of innovation. Indeed, Hesston is still having an oversized impact on agriculture worldwide, especially given AGCO’s reach. The tide of innovation continues to rise, even after a prolific period.
David Disberger, now AGCO’s vice president of product engineering for AGCO’s facilities in Hesston and nearby Beloit, Kan., began working at Hesston in 2005. “When I started working here,” he says, “we filed less than 10 patents a year. Last year, we submitted over 60. By large strides, we’ve been growing our intellectual property. One reason for that is we’ve created that culture, that awareness, that appetite for innovation, for encouraging innovative ideas.
“That helps set Massey Ferguson and our other brands apart from our competition, but so does the fact that we have a lot fewer levels of management,” he continues. “That structure provides flexibility and freedom within our engineering teams. That really helps in developing creative solutions, solutions that aid the producer with more advanced products.”
Disberger, who grew up running Massey Ferguson combines in a family that operated a custom harvesting business, says that experience taught him “a lot about opportunities to continue to improve products. That drove me to become a mechanical engineer with the dream of someday working on combines.”
Such programs have spawned numerous advancements, many of which have revolved around combines. Among them are the Dyna-Flex Draper Headers (the first in the industry to have a fully flexible cutterbar that increases cutting, conveying and feeding performance), and the Trident processor, one of the most rugged and highest capacity processors on the market. Together with a new stratified cleaning system, the processor provides a significant capacity increase in clean grain delivery. The V-Cool™ system, another recent innovation introduced on both windrowers and combines manufactured at Hesston, greatly reduces the need for radiator cleaning and, as a result, load on the engine. Also, AGCO has recently introduced innovative products to support alternative fuel harvesting—what many consider the next big frontier for agriculture—helping bring down costs and significantly increase productivity.
Next on the horizon, says Disberger, “are several advancements in each product line, enhancing performance and efficiency. There are also exciting enhancements and additions coming to White Planter.”
Less noticeable to the public than new products, but vital in the effort to improve quality and lower costs, are the innovations in manufacturing processes being constantly developed and improved upon at Hesston. AGCO has installed new quality verification labs for windrowers and combines, while a similar facility is in the works for balers. Ultra-fast laser cutters and state-of-the-art welding and placement robots are speeding up and adding additional precision to the manufacturing process.
These robots are one of the most significant innovations at Hesston, says Anthony Stecker, manufacturing engineer manager at the facility. “They allow us to precisely position parts. That’s very important when you’re talking large rotating weldments, such as those on our combine rotors that are spinning at speeds up to 1,200 rpm. These robots better enable us to get each rotor balanced correctly, so it works well in the machine and doesn’t add vibrations.”
But the biggest news, and certainly the biggest building at Hesston, is a new $40 million paint and finishing facility set to go online in early 2013. The immense size of the facility, which alone will add 200,000 square feet to the plant’s current 1.3 million, will allow “us to begin doing 100% assembly of our equipment after paint,” says Tim Page, a business unit manager who’s been with Hesston for 39 years. “That will add value for the customer, because we’ll be able to apply better corrosion-resistant coatings on the equipment. For hardworking farm equipment, that’s very important,” and even more so, says Page, for equipment that gets shipped overseas under harsh conditions.
In any enterprise, it’s hard to put a price on what is a business’ single most important component—the personnel who design the equipment, man the machines, and put all the pieces and parts together. They bring intangible qualities to the floor, including enthusiasm, creativity and pride—all qualities that must be tapped if a business is to not only survive, but thrive.
At Hesston, there’s a 65-year tradition of this human resource being utilized and fostered. It’s a spirit bred from an intimate knowledge and proximity to farming. It’s personal, says Bill Kaltenberg, Hesston site vice president. “In our community, we see our products being used every day. Our neighbors are using them, some of our employees are farmers themselves, and that experience goes into every product we make.
“We don’t—we can’t —lose sight of the fact that people use our products to make a living,” says Kaltenberg.
“That’s why they continue to receive a product that has superior quality, and that’s a big reason why we’ll continue to innovate and offer customer-focused solutions for as long as there are farmers.”