Need a $10,000 single-row tractor to work small farm acreage? You’ll probably want to check out Alabama-based tractor manufacturer Cleber LCC.
In February, Delta Farm Press first spoke with Horace Clemmons, co-owner of the company, who was preparing for another trip to Cuba to set up the first U.S.-owned factory approved to be built and operated on the island nation in over 50 years. With those plans still on track – the factory is expected to open in 2017 – media exposure and interest from all over the globe has led Clemmons and business partner Saul Berenthal to expand horizons for the business.
Clemmons spoke with Delta Farm Press again in early May. Among his comments:
On where Cleber started versus where it’s at now…
“After the December 17th, 2014, announcement from Presidents Obama and Castro, everyone started looking forward to selling something to Cuba. So, Saul and I took a different approach; we started with an analysis of the Cuban situation and environment. We read everything that President Castro had said was important to the Cuban people and said ‘If we’re going to succeed at this we have to offer a deal they can’t refuse.’ So, we looked at their problem of food production but also the way they view having been isolated due the U.S. embargo. We said ‘Okay, that’s made Cuba very independent and insistent that they not have to depend on any one source. It has to be based on what they say they want.’
“Food production was one of the most important issues addressed by President Castro. If they are to grow their economy initially through tourism, they cannot continue to import 60 percent to 80 percent of their food."
“We also realized that it was very important to understand their view of business relationships. The isolation created by the U.S. embargo made Cuba very independent and as a result, they are insistent that they not have to depend on only one source.
“That’s all part of the business model we put together for them. We call it Open Source Manufacturing Model (OSMM). The principles of OSMM are that ‘we’ll publish the design of the tractor, we’ll identify multiple suppliers for every component ion the tractor. Publishing the design will, over time, enable Cuba to manufacture as many of the components as possible. The design is such that the tractors can be fixed in the field or shop. Plus, the tractor will not be designed for obsolescence.’ That was the business model we put together for Cuba.”
On broadening interest in the tractors…
“We carried that message to trade shows in Cuba. What happened is people from other countries were there – from Africa, from all over South and Central America, from Europe – and they kept saying ‘wait a second, these tractors would solve our problems also.’
“Then, contacts in U.S. agriculture and a large number of emails from American farmers keep asking when they’ll be available in the States. Initially, we said we had no plans to release the tractor here in the U.S., but we got so much feedback we realized that was a mistake. We can sell it in the United States within 60 days – much quicker than anywhere overseas.
“Then, we said ‘well, this will only work if we do a good job educating the marketplace to our business model.’ Cuba, Africa and some of the developing Asian countries want independence and are accustomed to having to fix everything themselves, which made it much easier for them to understand the model. America’s marketplace is a tougher nut to crack because of all the money spent by the big manufacturers saying how important branding is.”
More on OSMM…
“Somehow or another, we must help the agricultural community in the industrialized nations understand that OSMM and this type of machine is the only way you’re going to get affordable equipment to the small farm environment. The big manufacturers over-engineer their machines for the simple jobs small farmers need done.
“There are many manufactures that make lawn and garden tractors, tractors for hobby farmers. But no one produces a good row crop tractor. To understand what is needed they only need look back at the first tractors that were introduced to replace livestock. No one is asking how to help a farmer with 40 to 60 acres, a single-row farmer. No one is trying to develop a tractor that have has both low purchase price and cost of ownership over the life of the tractor.
“Our goal is to address the small farm requirements on a global basis. We must help farmers understand we’re building a tractor that won’t change with time unless the basic requirement of the small farmer changes. And, it’s very important to understand, it will all be open system.
“For example, in Cuba most of the parts can easily be built. They can build seats, fuel tanks, hydraulic cylinders, whatever. So, they should build those and help the local economy.
“The same is true here. Take any community of 10,000 to 12,000 it’ll have more than one metal fabrication shop. By we publish the designs, someone who can’t find a part cheap enough can just go their local fab shop with the design and have them make a hydraulic cylinder, a lift arm or many other parts on the tractor.
“The basic design principles of the tractor are: cost effective, simple, rugged, fix in the field or shop with multiple suppliers for all parts. We don’t want to be the source for replacement parts. Let someone else be in that business and let local economies grow as a result. We’re not trying to force people to do business with us.
Benefits of using the Allis Chalmers model?
“When starting on this, we wanted to find the best single-row tractor ever made. We believe it’s the Allis Chalmers Model G. The engine is in the rear and wheel width can be easily adjusted to handle multiple crop types. Visibility is also a key – using this tractor, you can look between your legs and see the row. You’re not looking at an offset and can adjust your cultivator and work your crop at a much finer level.
“In our initial design phase of the tractor we realized that the main frame unit, containing the engine, hydraulic systems and the drive train could be used as the basis for a multitude of light farm and construction equipment. We will be using it to manufacture several items including front-end loaders, excavators and other equipment.
“While we’ll build different machines, they’ll all have common components so if something breaks it’s easy to replace. Many farmers need a skid steer and a tractor. If a transaxle on the skid steer goes out, you could just pop one off the tractor, install it and keep working until you get a spare part in.
“We’ll be making components as interchangeable as possible. The same is true of the engines. The interchangeability of components across models is most convenient.
“We’ve applied for a patent on the whole concept of interchangeable parts, one platform for multiple devices. What we’ll do is issue that patent for free to anyone wanting to build a piece of equipment we aren’t building. They only have to agree to do the same on anything they build that’s patentable. That way we control the base design and maintain quality.”
“We’re in the process of building an internet store so folks can place orders for tractors and parts and put down a deposit. Once an order is made, within two weeks we’ll have a delivery date scheduled. The customer will pay for delivery but we’ll schedule to offload tractors from Point A to Point B. That way we’ll ensure the lowest possible delivery costs.
“We’re currently working with several banks to offer financing for the tractors based on credit approval.”
“You’d have to work awfully hard with a single-row tractor to get close to 100 acres. The ideal range is 20 acres to 60 acres, which is what many of the new farmers – folks who’ve retired or have gone big into the farm-to-table movement – have. For lack of a better term ‘boutique’ farms tied to people wanting locally-sourced food, farmer’s markets and the like, are very popular. These tractors would fit their operations very well.”
“Almost every time I speak to someone about this, they’re initially confused. It’s just so different from the current thinking with big manufacturers that it’s hard to get your mind around.
“This is a process designed for the market that can’t currently afford a new tractor from a big name company. Name any of them and a significant percentage of the people who’ve bought from them – at least in the conversations I’ve had with them – aren’t crazy about the idea of being locked in; locked in to a specific garage, locked into expensive parts, locked into a big price tag.
“We understand all that and we’ll produce a high-quality product and continue to earn folks’ respect every day.
“People have also been asking about equipment. The three key pieces we’ll have are a cultivator, a plow and a hipper/bedder. Detailed designs of all those will be published. We’ll say ‘Guys, it costs money to ship metal. You can buy from us and we’ll ship them with the tractor to reduce costs as much as possible. But you should consider taking these designs to your local fab shop and have them build it. Or go on the internet and find them – whatever is cheaper.’
“It’s all about ensuring what most farmers want: independence. Using this model means they are free to do business with whomever they choose.”