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Kansas Profile Stories

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Alan VanNahmen

Who knows more about combines than anybody in the country? Some agribusiness companies would tell you that the answer to that question is Alan VanNahmen from rural Kansas. He is now working with farmers and others to develop even better combines and other harvesting systems for the future.

Alan VanNahmen comes from the rural community of Spearville in southwest Kansas. Spearville has a population of 817 people. Now, that’s rural.

Alan grew up in a farming family with three brothers and four sisters. That meant everybody had to pitch in on the farm. “As a kid, I drove lots of combines,” Alan said. They tried different types of equipment. It also meant that, when something broke, they fixed it rather than paying a repairman.

Some people would call that adversity. “Adversity created opportunity,” Alan said. It gave him first-hand knowledge of how combines work.

Alan went to high school in Spearville. For foreign language, he happened to take a French class.  He went on to Dodge City Community College and then to K-State, where he first majored in agricultural engineering and then graduated in mechanical engineering technology in 1977.

He had planned to go back to the farm but John Deere was recruiting engineers. Alan and his dad thought it would be good for him to get some business experience before returning to the farm, so he took a position with Deere and Company. He worked in field service across the U.S.

Remember that French class he had in high school? In 1982, John Deere launched a business initiative in Europe. Because of Alan’s knowledge of the French language, he was sent to France.  This launched a remarkable international experience. After President Nixon opened up commercial relations with the People’s Republic of China, Alan led the effort to introduce combines into the Orient.

Eventually Alan came back to the states where he managed a territory in the U.S. He worked in a John Deere research center where pioneering work was being done on the first robotic welders, automatic guidance systems, and more. Then he took a position with Claas, the German-owned combine company, and settled with his wife and family in Columbus, Indiana.

During his corporate career, he observed farmers who struggled to present their innovative farm equipment ideas to companies for potential manufacturing. He thought to himself, “Those farmers need a friend to guide them through this process.”

In 1991, Alan founded a company he called Farm Buddy to assist farmers with product design and development. He now serves as a consultant to farmers and agribusinesses. His specialty is crop harvesting systems. He has had clients as far away as Germany, France, Australia, China, and New Zealand. Today he has offices in Indiana and Kansas and travels perhaps two-thirds of the year.

Alan was working on a process to bale forage for the cellulosic ethanol plant in southwest Kansas when his brother Fred told him about another farm family which needed help with harvest. He met Kyle Kopper of Kopper Family Farms and Kyle’s father-in-law, Randy Burns. They had corn and sorghum (milo) to harvest in the large fields of southwest Kansas.

“They bought a new $70,000 milo head, and on the first day (of harvest), the slip clutch went out,” Alan said. In frustration, they recognized they needed a new and more reliable sorghum harvesting system.

“You can do a lot of thinking while driving combines in long rows,” Alan said. He thought about ways to redesign the standard corn harvesting attachment to make it adaptable for harvesting sorghum. He and the others designed a prototype and put it to the test in 2015. It worked so well that they got a provisional patent and continued to develop the concept.

Who knows more about combines than anybody in the country? According to some agribusiness companies, that person is Alan VanNahmen. We salute Alan and others involved in this project for making a difference by seeking improvement in harvesting systems. Alan is truly an outstanding expert in his field.

And there’s more. We’ll learn about their new harvesting system and a real life-and-death situation next week.

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Randy Burns

Have you ever looked for arrowheads in a field? Today in Kansas Profile, we’ll learn about a different kind of arrowhead, but it is still in a field – in fact, it’s working very effectively in various farm fields.

Last week we learned about Alan VanNahmen who created the Farm Buddy company to help farmers commercialize their equipment innovations. One of his current projects, called the ARRO Head Harvesting System, involves farmers in southwest Kansas.

Randy Burns is field operations manager for the ARRO Head Harvesting System. He has a compelling life story to tell. Randy grew up at the rural community of Cimarron, population 2,236 people. Now, that’s rural.

Randy married his high school sweetheart who became a nurse. He became a custom cutter during harvest time. Randy and his wife had a son and two daughters, one of whom married a leading local farmer named Kyle Kopper.

For 30 years, Randy and his father custom cut together. Then came July 3, 2010. Randy was harvesting in western Kansas when suddenly his leg was crushed underneath a grain cart.  Tendons were exposed and the main artery was severed. “I figured I should call my wife and family and tell `em I love `em,” Randy said. “I was about to pass out when I thought to myself, `You’ve preached all your life about being tough. Don’t give up.’”

Randy was rushed to a local hospital where his condition was stabilized. Then he was helicoptered to Denver.

The doctors told Randy they would need to amputate the leg. Rebuilding it would have uncertain results and might require 20 to 25 surgeries. Randy said, “Hey, I’ve got to cut corn in a couple of months. If we need to take it off, let’s do it.” Since the next day was the Fourth of July when all the doctors had the day off, they decided to do the operation on the Fifth.

On July 5, Randy signed the paperwork to authorize the amputation. Then the doctors found that, amazingly, Randy could still wiggle his toes. When Randy awoke from surgery, he found his leg was still there. The surgeons had reconnected tendons and veins. The leg was saved.

One month later, Randy was in a combine cutting barley in Colorado. He used crutches and pulled himself up into the cab of the combine. That year he was able to cut 4,000 acres of corn.  In the end, only five surgeries were required.

After the accident, Randy went to work on the farm of his son-in-law, Kyle Kopper. There, Randy and the Koppers met combine consultant Alan VanNahmen who had come to help with harvest. They needed a new and improved system for harvesting grain sorghum. They wanted to convert the combine’s corn harvesting attachment, called a corn head, so it could harvest grain sorghum more effectively.

They designed such a system and it worked so well they decided to market it. They called it Alternate Rotary Rowcrop Option, or A-R-R-O – ARRO for short. “Randy is a big Kansas City Chiefs fan, so he liked calling it ARRO Head,” Alan VanNahmen said.

The ARRO Head offers more reliability, the ability to pick up down or lodged crops, greater control of cutting height, and does not require permanent modification of the corn head. They are now building kits which can be used by farmers or equipment dealers to convert corn heads.  They plan to test this innovative design on various models during the harvest in South America, which is off-season from the harvest in the U.S.

Be watching for more information about the ARRO Head Harvesting System.

Have you ever looked for arrowheads in a field? Today we’ve learned about a different kind of arrowhead, the ARRO Head system which can be used to convert corn heads to harvest grain sorghum and other crops. We commend Alan VanNahmen, Kyle Kopper and Randy Burns for making a difference with their agricultural innovation. We especially salute Randy for his courage and resilience.

“I’m fine now,” Randy said. “Compared to what some people have gone through, this is nothing.”  That type of attitude is good to find.

 

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