DEVILS LAKE, N.D. — While the Upper Great Plains ag equipment market has struggled with lackluster commodity prices and drought, Summers Manufacturing of Devils Lake, N.D., has found some welcomed lift in foreign markets.
In December 2016, a large order came from a dealer network in Russia. It was a mixed bag of harrows, chisel plows and sprayers — essentially doubling the orders from the previous year.
"We just nearly jumped — 'Hurrah,'" recalls Debra "Deb" (Summers) Anderson, president of the company. "This was a big deal. You need to have that diversification in order to survive, and product-wise, too. That's what's going to keep you in the game."
The uptick was huge for the employee-owned company that had been hurt by a downturn in the region's ag economy. Summers' annual sales had fallen to half of the heady high-water mark of $75 million in 2013. The export work has solidified about six of the positions at the plant, but the worker census is about 80, about a third of the 250 person count in boom days of 2012.
The Summers Manufacturing factory was built in 1981 for $2 million and since has undergone four additions, including the last one at more than $5 million. Replacing it probably would cost more than $30 million. Today it runs at about 80 percent plant capacity and is using the latest in technologies — robotic welding, more laser cutters — to become more efficient.
A busy factory staff hustles to make 14 product lines with variations, from tillage and sprayers to land rollers and rock pickers.
Like a family
The Summers story started in Harley Summers' blacksmith shop at Maddock, N.D., in 1965. Maddock is a town of 400 people about 40 miles southwest of Devils Lake.
Harley saw his blacksmithing craft becoming obsolete, and he decided to reinvent himself. Deb was about 10 years old then and remembers traveling with him as he looked for a new enterprise. He bought a truck and pickup hoist business from the Goebel brothers of Lehr, N.D.
In the late 1960s, Arden Herman, a Brinsmade, N.D., farmer, approached Summers to make parts for a harrow. Herman was building other parts at his farm, but eventually the demand grew and the assembly moved to Maddock.
Summers paid Herman a royalty for using his name in the "Herman Harrow" (later the "Summers Culti-Harrow"). In the 1970s the "fencerow-to-fencerow" gave the company a lift. They built a Superweeder — a secondary, finishing tillage tool aimed at the Red River Valley sugar beet market.
In the late 1970s, the company bought out Crown Manufacturing from Regina, Saskatchewan, and in the fall of 1981, they put its new $2 million plant at Devils Lake to build the Rock Pickers line, as well as Culti-Harrow attachments.
In 1984, the company introduced the Diamond Disk — another Arden Herman idea. But this time the farm credit crisis heated up, followed by a drought in 1988 and 1989.
"Times got tough," says Brian Perkuhn, vice president of sales. Perkuhn grew up on a farm near Pekin, N.D., and joined Summers as a welder in 1982. He stayed there in part because his father urged him not to come back to farm.
Harley Summers retired in the early 1990s, and the next generation took over. Larry became president, Carter headed sales and Deb became chief financial officer. They led a period of product acquisitions to diversify the company.
Herman's Diamond Disk idea eventually became a winner. It was a solid diamond shape with three sets of wheels under it, and had a floating hitch to provide less rock damage than conventional disks.
They'd made replacement tools for other companies' chisel plows, but in 1997, Summers came out with its own chisel plow, followed in 2000 by their Super Coulter, a vertical tillage implement for spring seedbed preparation — especially attractive to minimum tillage farmers. Summers built a disk chisel and coulter chisel to help the heavy residue associated with corn-on-corn, as the Corn Belt moved northward.
Meanwhile, in the late 1990s, Summers acquired a sprayer line from Fargo Tank and Steel Co. They made pickup truck-mounted sprayers — the perfect application tool when farmers' wheat fields were attacked by orange wheat blossom midge in the 1990s. This led to an entire sprayer line, ending with wheeled- and suspended-boom models that range to 132 feet in width.
In 2002, the company got into making "rock removal" products, including the Rock Picker line and land rollers. Land rollers push rocks and clods into the soil to make for a cleaner, faster harvest in the fall.
In the early 2000s, then sales vice president Carter Summers led a foray into former Soviet Union countries, including Russia and Kazakhstan, as well as Ukraine. Perkuhn and Anderson both credit the U.S. Department of Commerce Export Assistance Center in Fargo and the North Dakota Trade Office in fostering relationships.
The market quickly expanded from 2006 to 2009. Summers initially sold through a Canadian collaborator but soon hired their own representative who called on large farming entities in that part of the world — dealerships and short-line outfits. Howard Dahl, CEO of Amity Technology in Fargo, blazed the trail for North Dakota in that region, selling air seeders and sugar beet equipment.
These countries accounted for 10 to 15 percent the company's expanding volume. Sales there would ebb and flow with currency differences between the U.S. dollar and the Russian ruble, the Kazakhstani tenge or the Ukrainian hryvnia.
Perkuhn says farming is on a huge scale over there, which is good if you're selling machinery.
"There's a lot of unused soil over there that hasn't been tilled in 30 to 40 years," Perkuhn says. "They're looking to bring new land into production again, so there's a need for tillage equipment."
Summers' largest customer in that part of the world controls 1.5 million acres, Perkuhn says. More typical customers control 25,000 acres. A single farm can use 30 to 40 of the units.
It got quiet
The company was 100 percent employee-owned in 2007, and Anderson became president in 2008. In 2010, the company expanded its core states from the Dakotas and Minnesota to 13 states through the center of the country.
Anderson describes herself as an "internal" leader, who grooves on collaboration and innovation, as well as "never giving up." She says she uses lessons learned from her brothers and father to model how an employee-owned leader operates, with transparency and training.
"Everyone knows all of the numbers," she says.
In late 2013 and 2014, sales got "very quiet" at the end of a six-year boom, leading to a series of employee layoffs and cutbacks, Anderson recalls.
"It was hard and it was hard on the people," Anderson says. That was doubly hard in 2015 when Summers celebrated its first 50 years in business. Even as they hosted dignitaries, Anderson knew the company needed to make painful changes.
In 2016, the company closed the original factory in Maddock, where about 10 employees still worked and where Anderson still lives with her husband, Les, a retired farmer who once worked seasonally as a welder at Summers. Anderson feels fortunate the company was able to sell the building in her hometown, to keep it in use.
Anderson sees her company as solid but doesn't know if it will ever get as big as it was five years ago.
"It could get close, but that wasn't a normal situation, I think," she says. "I think if things are cyclical we could see it again, maybe in 15 years. But we've been here 50 years, so I'm confident we'll reach our goals again."