BY John Stephen Williams
It is no secret that the Agricultural Machinery market has become ever more competitive, whilst at the same time the global market is shrinking. Faced with lower profit margins, or no profit at all, farmers have delayed purchasing equipment and the stock is now aging to a point of becoming obsolete. The dilemma for the farmer is that although he knows new plant is vital for the long term survival of his business, the high cost means that he will see little return on his investment for many years. Therefore he has to think not only twice but three times before contemplating investing in an uncertain future.

The answer increasingly appears to be that in order to entice 21st century farmer to put his hand into his pocket, the product has to be versatile, able to perform a multitude of tasks and of course easy to operate. Most farmers neither have the time, nor the inclination to read complex manuals and they have to have confidence that before entrusting their pride and joy to the labour force they should not first go out and get themselves a degree in mechanical science.

Multi faceted, with the capability to adapt to varying conditions, a tall order, but a challenge that ‘Sustainable Agricultural Machinery Developments Pty Ltd’ or “Sam” has grasped with both hands and from all accounts appears to have found a winning formula.

In recent years new farm machinery technology has encompassed many new and exciting developments. Key advances have been made in navigation systems operating from space satellites that locate the tractor’s position. Sensors that precisely measure soil fertility and devices that accurately control seeding, tillage and chemical distribution.

The concept of multi-tasked machinery is one that SAM has embraced from its inception. Co-founded in 1989 by David and Tracy McGrath and Gary Griffith, from the beginning SAM has been in the forefront of research and development. Rather than following trends set by competitors, the company from the outset has put a great deal of it’s resources into research and developing new forms of machinery suitable for sustainable agriculture and to advance better growing techniques. Their accomplishments were recognized in 1991 when they won the prestigious ‘Australian Inventor of the Year’.

Their first major success was the development of a ‘Power Weeder’ in 1990, the first of it’s kind. Originally aimed for use in the Market Garden industry with hilled row crops, it was not long before it’s potential was recognized by the agricultural industry. The Power Weeder was truly an overnight success story and for a number of years has been sold all over the world.

Undoubtedly the success of the Power Weeder was the main catalyst for the companies decision to concentrate on the agricultural machinery market and they have been making inroads ever since.

There is no doubt that when compared with some of their competitors they have been fortunate. So many firms in their infancy flounder for lack of capital and orders. When in 1991 the Australian Department of Industry, Technology and Commerce approved a research and development grant for the firm, it was an important milestone for this fledgling company. Not only did it offer them a badly needed injection of capital, it was also a statement to the fact that their potential as a world-beater had been recognized and the state was prepared to invest in them.

Sadly in many countries that is not always the case. To be fair partnership or interest by government has often been construed as interference, but numerous companies’ today need their governments support more than ever. The more competitive the market the greater need for government backing. This is certainly true of this industry that is facing a crisis of confidence.

The dilemma facing this industry is this, the farmer needs the best machinery for his land but the manufacturer can often only meet that need by taking a cut in profit and operating on slimmer margins. Alternatively cutting one’s research budget may be the answer. The manufacturer knows that advances often mean more expensive machinery and expensive machinery is something that many customers simply cannot afford, so why bother to put money into research if the client can’t afford it? The answer surely is that without research and development the industry will die.

In this industry SAM is living proof that by government recognising potential and offering a helping hand, a company can go from strength to strength. This is not protectionism by the back door, but a statement of fact. Investment in agriculture is badly needed and to safeguard the industry someone has to pay for new machinery if a sustainable industry is to continue. This is not a case for continual subsidy, but strategic intervention.

Through a government grant SAM was and is continuing to invest in research. The company followed it up with a range of machines which formed what is known as the ‘Raised Bed Management (RBM) System. The climax to the project came in 1994 with the ‘Bedformer, Bedlocker and Weeder/ Cultivator System known as the S.A.M RBM System.

At the same time that the RBM System was being developed the company was working on a set of designs for a range of Seeders known as the ‘Samseeder. Built to perform in the harshest of regions, the Samseeder was designed with flexibility in mind and could be mounted on direct drills, power harrows, or even rotary hoes. At the time of writing the company had approximately forty seven designs all interestingly manufactured with the philosophy of sustainability and conversion of old equipment to new firmly entrenched. Over the course of its history the company has won a number of awards for its designs.

When one examines the track record of SAM one sees many parallels with recommendations made in an American working project entitled ‘New Developments in Farm Machinery: Opportunities in New Technology, Selected Equipment and Overseas Market’ known as the GA-0073 report. One of the conclusions to come out of the report was the view that increased crop yields could not be expected to come indefinitely from the use of greater amounts of chemicals, therefore the answer must lie with better machinery.

The reports recommendations are very much in line with the direction taken by SAM in its desire to meet the needs of Organic Farming. The company states that the original purpose of the ‘Raised Bed Management System’ was to cater for some of the problems encountered in Organic agriculture namely cultivation and weeding. Weeding is especially a problem because the ban on the use of chemicals means that it is more time consuming.

It would probably be fair to say that the growth of crops using the system of raised beds is associated primarily with the third world and is used extensively on the continents of Asia and South America. China and Vietnam in South East Asia and Bolivia and Peru in South America have used the system for generations. In previous years many farmers had abandoned the system in favour of the use of farming with chemicals, but the so called ‘Green Revolution’, has now made ‘RBM’ a far more attractive proposition, so much so that parts of the USA and Europe have now adopted it.

The first organic farmer to trial the system was Mr Lindsey Wadeson in 1993.

Wadeson grew Brassicas on raised beds to repeatedly crop cauliflowers, cabbages and broccoli and break crops of sweet corn and rye corn. At the end of the trial period he stated the system was exceptionally precise and had a weed kill of 95% at the top of the bed. The system was also valuable in the rebuilding of the bed structure.

For perhaps the first time the RBM system has made the concept of raised bed agriculture truly viable and which will help to sustain and improve the world’s soils. Although farming and Organic farming in particular will never be easy, it has eliminated much of the backbreaking work previously associated with this work. To quote the company:

‘The RBM system was brought about with the philosophy of minimum tillage / no-till, zero chemical usage and permanent bed philosophy.’

Since the early 1990’s several modifications have been made to improve the system. It is now designed to accommodate almost any crop, soil variety, degree of progress and agronomic method of farming.

Mass Market Verses Individual Needs

One of the key components of SAM’s success has been their decision to sell directly to the farmer and their preparedness to design to the specifications of the individual need. Designer tractors? Desirable, no doubt, but can the concept compete with the cheaper mass produced machinery? Apparently the answer is yes.

Meeting individual specifications and still remain competitive is a winning formula that the firm has found. The company has continued to hold and even improve its share of the market and because the customer remains loyal, the market remains buoyant and the firm competitive In this case the adage that the customer knows best seems to be true. For every company of course this position is not always possible, but it certainly makes sense. If the client knows that the firm will sit down with them and discuss their individual needs the customer will gain confidence both in the machine and in the people with whom they are dealing. In a competitive market this could very well be a key component.

One example of this philosophy being translated into the product itself is in their ‘Bedlocker’. The size is made to order. Single and triple versions are custom designed to accommodate bed widths, heights, shapes and of course crops. Special P.T.O Bedlocker frames can also be designed for mounting any equipment.

Today SAM still works out of one factory in Australia, but there are currently six proposals on the drawing board for manufacturing outside Australia. China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, South Africa and the USA are all being looked at. The amount of employees is relatively tiny namely seven people in the workshop and a further sixteen to eighteen people outsourcing. Three men are currently employed in the marketing company ‘advantec sam’.

On top of their research and development, the firm is currently working on six projects. The first is a five-year joint project on a CSIRO System. The aim of the project has been the utilisation of untreated sewage water to maintain crop growth. Clearly in arid regions of the globe this process would be a useful adjunct and free up some of the water supply. The whole process involves a delicate balance of filtration of all salts whilst at the same time allowing water flow of 30% back into the stream. The Australian government has taken a keen interest in the work.

The second project the company is currently working on is largely centred on their work with the revolutionary ‘Raised Bed Management System of bed forming and bed restoring. The primary purpose is to design a system whereby pineapples can be grown using raised bed system management in conjunction with mulch covers. For this project the company is going to work closely within the industry.

SAM’s third project is a marked departure from their work in agriculture. The company is developing a system by which materials can be incorporated into the soil of playing fields and any outside Arenas, thus forming better surfaces.

A European company has contracted SAM to redesign a reverse till machine. The machine will be compatible for both broad acreage and horticulture. The apparatus it is envisioned will bury any rubbish, stones, crop remains etc whilst at the same time forming and compacting the beds.

The company’s fifth project appears to focus once again on their expertise in arid conditions. SAM is designing a dry land system of growing sugar cane by using the available water in the ground whilst not overworking the soil so much that it dries out the soil completely. Within this framework the company is developing a machine that works a slot only in the bed top. By ensuring that only a fraction of the surface is exposed the hope is that this will safeguard the remainder by not drying up scarce resources of water. The machine will plant the stools in a slot and because care has been taken in exposing the soil, essential water resources are protected for nurturing the crop and not simply evaporated away.

The companies final project at the moment is develop a new ‘UREA HOPPER’. The proposal is to build a hopper that will be able to fit most seeders, plus work as a third box, for example, seed, fertilise, and urea all in one pass. It is believed that the new hopper will save the farmer in both time and effort. Currently the farmer has to pass over his field three times, the company claims that the new hopper will cut it to twice.

Machinery that is kinder to the land, machinery that is adaptable to all circumstances, SAM appears to have had the foresight to recognize the direction the industry was going in and grabbed a march on the competition. Its forward thinking is evident in the fact that it was quick to see the potential of the ‘Organic’ market and hoisted its colours to the Organic mast. Nevertheless despite its forward approach, there is an underlining down to earth ethos in the managements thinking which is refreshing. This is perhaps best illustrated in their attitude to their employees.

I asked David Mcgrath what qualifications he looks for when recruiting. Certificates don’t mean much and he never takes anyone on simply on the basis of their scholastic record. “I always have a two week period to test out a new employee before taking them on permanently. However, I’d rather take on experienced people because experience cannot be beaten.”

Mcgrath comes across as a bit of a missionary and one can tell that he is passionate about his work. His motto is: “Save our soils” and this philosophy is ingrained into all SAM’s inventions. If past success is anything to go by this one example of a firm down under that has no intention of being down and out.