What began as a humble potato equipment company more than 60 years ago by two brothers in east Idaho has developed into part of a multi-national company supplying potato equipment to growers around the world.
In 1958, Carl Hobbs and Leo Hobbs named their startup company Spudnik, a pun on Sputnik, the first satellite to orbit the earth, launched by the Soviet Union on Oct. 4, 1957.
At the beginning, the Hobbs brothers focused on storage equipment with a potato scooper, for moving potatoes into a storage cellar, their first manufactured piece, followed by a swinging boom for putting potatoes into storage sheds.
Today, you will find the fire-engine red Spudnik equipment helping prepare potato fields, planting potatoes, harvesting potatoes, transporting potatoes from the fields and putting tubers into storage.
In 1960, Spudnik moved to Blackfoot. They broke ground on their current facility on Pioneer Road west of Blackfoot in 1997.
In 2001, Spudnik entered into a joint partnership venture with Grimme Agricultural Equipment, based in Germany and is now wholly owned by Grimme. Grimme manufacturers a wide variety of agricultural equipment for use in potato, sugar-beet and vegetable production.
Today, Spudnik has sales offices in Heyburn, Grafton, N.D., and Presque Isle, Maine, and employs more than 300 people at the corporate headquarters in Blackfoot.
Spudnik’s red equipment is hard to miss here in Idaho, or anywhere across the United States, Canada, Asia, Europe and South America.
“A majority of our equipment is sold in Canada and the United States, but we probably have somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of our equipment that is sold internationally” said Andrew Blight, Spudnik’s marketing and sales support manager. “We’ve had equipment sold in pretty much all the potato-growing areas around the world.”
While total potato acreage in the United States has remained relatively stable, the company continues to see positive growth in North America, Blight said.
“Long term, we’ve seen growth from small farms going away into much larger, corporate farms across the nation and into Canada,” he said.
Statistics released annually by the U. S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service show total potato acreage in the U.S. fluctuated between 1.15 million acres in 2012 and 1.03 million acres in 2018.
“I think the industry continues to grow,” Blight said. “Not necessarily by additional acres but in reassignment of those acres. We have customers who are getting larger by absorbing other entities.”
With the 2019 fall harvest season in full swing, Spudnik’s sales force and engineers are fanning out across the country, from Maine to northwest Washington, checking on prototypes being field tested and on customer satisfaction with the performance of current equipment models.
“Our engineering folks spend a lot of time in the field talking with customers, understanding those needs that they have and checking the current equipment and how well it’s performing and looking for opportunities to improve the machines to increase harvest efficiency,” Blight said.
A major issue is how the equipment handles different soil conditions in the regional potato areas of the U.S. Whether it’s the hard, rocky soil of Maine, the clay and muck conditions of Wisconsin and the Red River Valley soils or Idaho’s fine, sandy soil.
“We always want to make sure we get machines in those areas to make sure we haven’t missed something in our Idaho trials,” he said.
Spudnik typically has between two and five prototypes being field tested annually.
“At Spudnik, we devote a lot of resources and time in developing new products,” Blight said. “This year in 2019, we’re getting ideas and concepts and requests from customers and we’ll analyze all of those and see what makes sense for the industry and for Spudnik. Then we will make a plan and develop a prototype so that next fall, next harvest in 2020, we would have a prototype machine to test in the field.”
One prototype being field tested this fall is an eight-row windrower that will handle increased acreage and reduce the necessary harvest window, thereby allowing the crop longer growing time, Blight said.
“After we put a prototype in the field, the following year we will build what we call limited productions,” he said. “So probably less then five units to make sure that we can try the machine in different areas around the country. The following year after that, typically, is when we would go into full production and have the machine available for general sale at that time.”
According to Blight, China, India and some South American countries are trying to increase their potato production to mimic the U.S. and Canada style of large-scale production. That represents a developing trend that could lead to increased international export sales for Spudnik.
The recent tariff issues have not affected Spudnik; however, a steady supply of component parts is an ongoing concern, Blight said.
“From a supply-chain standpoint, things are much tighter than they used to be,” he said. “It has increased the lead times of our components. We’re planning a year to a year and a half in advance for our procurements, so that we can make sure we have the components that we need, to build the machinery when we want to build them.”