"To exist in farming today, look at all the skills a farmer has to have. I know some farmers that should have a Ph.D." - Floyd Simpson

Thought for Food

At the top of the hill was the orange brick farmhouse with green shutters. Near a pile of wood, a gray cat blinked wearily. And on the back porch sat a bicycle frame bolted to a snowboard.

“Break your neck, guaranteed,” said Floyd Simpson, a 75-year-old Belmont County hay and cattle farmer, referring to the odd looking contraption.

Simpson’s version of recreation on the snowy hills of southeast Ohio was inspired by his homemade childhood sleds that were built from barrel staves.

“I made that thing and I ride it. Be prepared and keep the Band-Aids handy,” he said, acknowledging his creation is still too dangerous.

The apparatus, which Simpson made “just for fun,” may seem a bit strange, but a farmer devising an out-of-the-ordinary gadget or gizmo is anything but. There is some truth to an old adage that, in a pinch, farmers can fix anything with baling wire and duct tape. But what goes on in the farm machine shed often requires a bit more ingenuity.

A longtime inventor, Simpson holds several patents. The most success came from a tool resembling a pair of pliers that could unsnap livestock ear tags so they could be reused rather than discarded when an animal leaves the farm. Simple, yes, but the device could easily save farmers hundreds of dollars over time.

And Simpson isn’t alone in the farm invention business. There are at least 300 ways farmers have repurposed old school buses or worn out combines, according to a book published by Farm Show magazine, which highlights thousands of creative farm ideas from the United States and Canada.

One Highland County farmer turned an old bus into a free-range chicken coop. He tore out the seats, lined the aisle with nesting boxes and could efficiently drive hundreds of hens to fresh pastures.

“(Crop) prices haven’t really gone up for 50 years, with the exception of the past couple of years,” said Mark Newhall, Farm Show’s editor. “The only way people made more money was to find a quicker, better way to do stuff.”

According to Newhall, there are so many jobs on a farm, that it is difficult to purchase a new piece of equipment to tackle each of them. And because farmers have traditionally lived in more remote locations, they have become the “ultimate do-it-yourselfers,” he said.

“I don’t think most people understand what all goes into running a farm operation, that you have to be a welder and a mechanic and a financial wizard and planner and a budgeter and a strategic planner and all the hats you have to wear,” he said.

Some inventions Newhall comes across are practical, such as a 6-foot spinning wheel with a blade that can rapidly split wood. Some are highly sophisticated, such as the farmer who built his own combine from scratch.

“In a John Deere combine there’s about 15,000 parts. That one kind of boggled my mind,” Newhall said.

Other innovative ideas include a mobile greenhouse that can be moved into a heated garage on cold nights, a tractor fitted with a vertical street sweeping brush that clears weeds from fencerows and a large cart with what looks like massage tables – it allows berry pickers to lie comfortably on their stomachs as they’re towed above the plants. There are also a slew of homemade machines that can dig ditches, catch cows, pick corn or make hay.

Unlike other segments of the business world, Newhall said farmers are eager to share their innovations with others even when there is no financial gain.

“They’ll say, `I hope it helps somebody.’ I think it’s just kind of an ethic in farming,” he said. “It’s the reason I wanted to work with farmers when I got out of journalism school. It’s not cutthroat.”

Several years ago, Virginia Tarka represented Ohio in a competition called the Farmer Idea Exchange in which Farm Bureau members from across the country gather annually to share their creations. Tarka won in the wildlife category for her bluebird box that gives the mate a protected place to guard the nest from common farm predators such as cats, foxes and raccoons.

Tarka said she’s no bird expert but has just been observant over the years. Most farm inventions provide simple, practical fixes, she said, “that we have somehow gotten away from.” Still, she said farm solutions often rely on tremendous creativity.

“It will blow your mind, the ideas that farmers come up with,” Tarka said. “They improvise on their own, and boy it works.”

Don’t get the wrong impression, though. More farmers are making use of highly sophisticated technology. Some modern hog barns for instance, have computers that will call the farmer’s cell phone if they detect a problem. Tractors can be equipped with global positioning systems that guide them through fields with “sub-inch” accuracy. But those systems require large financial investments. And sometimes there simply isn’t a tool that will do a job in the way the farmer wants to do it.

“With me, it happens when I’m working with something and get disgusted and say `I have to find a better way,'” Simpson said. He added that many farmers have a tool or a machine “and there is only one in the world.”

That’s partly because of the difficulty of getting a product into the marketplace. After spending hours in the patent library, Simpson often finds someone has already come up with his idea. (Coincidently, he lives just a few miles from the home of Elisha Gray, the Ohio inventor who arrived at the patent office with his plan for a telephone just hours after Alexander Graham Bell.) Sometimes after careful consideration, he realizes an idea that seemed brilliant at first needs rethinking.

That was the case with his device that could instantly pluck the valves from tires. He figured the valves could be reused and it would make quick work of tire replacements. But in the wrong hands, a machine that could deflate four tires in a few seconds might not be a good idea after all he decided.

“That was kind of a fun thing to invent, and it worked, but it was stupid,” he said.

Simpson believes that people are naturally geared to invent a better way of getting a job done. But for farmers, he said, it’s a requirement.

“To exist in farming today, look at all the skills a farmer has to have,” he said. “I know some farmers that should have a Ph.D.”

Attention teachers and parents: See how this story connects to Ohio’s academic content standards.