BARNESVILLE, Ohio – There’s a little Thomas Edison in every farmer.
It’s when the feeding system groans and grinds to a halt or the tractor’s engine gurgles a few times before sputtering to a stop.
It’s when the hardware store closed an hour ago and the farmer must rely on his inventive imagination to solve the problem.
It’s times like this when the little Thomas Edison that dwells in the farmer creeps to the surface.
The “invention” could be nothing more than some baler twine and duct tape holding two broken parts together. Anything works as long as it will get the farmer to the next day’s work.
Sometimes the farmer crafts a more permanent creation. He drills, nails, screws, welds and bolts his invention -whatever it may be – together and uses it every day, not knowing that he may have invented the the farming industry’s next greatest breakthrough.
But how does a farmer take his innovation from the barn and put it on the shelves of stores for consumers to buy?
Mick Humphrey, of Barnesville, Ohio, is beginning to find out.
Step 1: Be a tinkerer. Some inventions are made by people who don’t know a screwdriver from a hammer, while others are invented by people who give their power tools first names. However, most inventors have a childlike curiosity about how things worked. They’re always taking things apart, putting them back together and thinking up new ways for the item to work better.
Humphrey was always a tinkerer. He snapped together erector sets and glued model cars together as a child and was an industrial arts “veteran” at Union Local High School in Morristown, Ohio, taking every shop class the school offered.
“I could turn out a wood project in a week,” Humphrey said.
Frank Greenlee, a vocational-agriculture teacher at Union Local, gave him the freedom to be inventive, Humphrey said.
“(Greenlee) didn’t say ‘Build this or that.’ He let you do what you want,” Humphrey said.
More than 20 years later, Humphrey is still devising inventions.
Step Two: Have an idea. Humphrey has lived on his 94-acre hay farm, south of Barnesville, Ohio, for 16 years with his wife, Tina, and two children, 13-year-old Kara and 10-year-old Micah.
One of his first inventions Humphrey remembers was a snow plow attachment, similar to all today’s attachable snow plows, that could easily be hooked and unhooked to his 1981 Toyota pick-up.
“I didn’t even think of contacting a manufacturer then,” he said.
During a cold winter in 1990, when he found it difficult to lift his round bales because the rings were frozen to ground, Humphrey went to the drawing board.
While watching television in his living room, he sat down with some graph paper and drew sketches of an hydraulic machine that attaches to the 3-point hitch of a tractor. Humphrey’s creation could lift heavier bales higher than standard 3-point hitches.
Humphrey is still seeking a patent for his invention so he can’t disclose specific details of his invention.
Using his drawings as a blueprint, Humphrey built a prototype in his father’s garage (where he built previous items). He hooked it up to his tractor, gave it a test-run and his then nameless item worked.
“I did it right the first time, by accident or not,” he said.
Step 3: Find someone to promote your item. Humphrey showed his gadget to some friends and they wanted him to make them one. He started to think about getting a patent for it, but didn’t know the names of any consulting firms.
One night his wife was reading the Barnesville Enterprise, a weekly newspaper.
She showed her husband a story about a man who lived no more than five miles from them, who invented an upside-down pump, which Humphrey remembers as an device that allows you to use spray bottles while holding them upside-down.
The article said the man used Invention Technologies, Inc., a consulting firm in Coral Gables, Fla., to promote his product to manufacturers.
Humphrey called the man in the article and got the phone number for the consulting firm.
In 2000, 10 years after he built his invention, Humphrey called the consulting firm and they sent an information packet to him, asking for drawings and information about his product.
Humphrey sent them four or five drawings of different inventions he designed. He sat in his living room and sketched a hay wagon that could be manufactured cheaply, a bucket lift system for a boom truck, a snow plow that could be easily attached to a truck and a hydraulic machine that could lift hay bales.
Invention Technologies picked his hydraulic machine and asked for a name.
“I came up with ‘hay lifter,’ but that doesn’t explain the whole tool,” he said.
Humphrey said he could think of about 20 uses for his product. It does anything a small crane can do.
From there, the consulting firm went to work. After putting the hay lifter through a market analysis, they researched the market to make sure there were no similar products, set up a Web site and sent the link to potential manufacturers and distributed product mailings.
Humphrey considered using a patent lawyer instead of a consulting firm, but said most patent lawyers only have offices in large cities and carry a $200 an hour price tag. A consulting firm costs about $6,000 to $7,000.
Step 4: Find someone to build your invention. Right now Humphrey is trying to find a manufacturer.
Humphrey hasn’t let the consulting firm do all the work either. He studied expired dealer books and ads in various newspapers (including the Farm and Dairy) for names of manufacturers and called over 20 manufacturers personally.
Even the bigger manufacturers like John Deere and New Holland didn’t turn their noses up at him and gave straightforward answers. “They gave me the time of day,” Humphrey said. “They sat down and listened.”
Humphrey said the only problem he encountered with manufacturers is their reluctance to sign disclosure agreements, which protect his idea from being stolen. Humphrey said manufacturers are willing to hear about your idea, but not willing to sign because if they later assemble a similar product, then there is potential for a lawsuit.
“If a manufacturer won’t sign a confidentiality agreement, don’t talk to them.” he said.
Two years after calling the Florida consulting firm, Humphrey has an interested manufacturer. Although nothing is certain, S&R Manufacturing, a farm equipment producer in Bird in Hand, Pa., is interested in Humphrey’s product.
If it works out, Humphrey will sign a licensing agreement, figure the nuts and bolts of production and the hay lifter will hit dealerships.
After the hay lifter is in stores, Humphrey said he has three more inventions on the drawing board.
There are a lot of farmers with good ideas for new products and they should pursue their ideas, Humphrey said.
“Jot them down and go for it,” he said. “What do you have to lose?”
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