Photos by Hillary Ehlen
With generations of manufacturing and innovations in his blood, Howard Dahl isn’t done yet.
If there’s one person in North Dakota who knows about the legacy of manufacturing in the state, it’s Howard Dahl. As the grandson of E.G. Melroe, the founder of the Melroe Company, which developed the Bobcat Loader, he went on to found Concord, Inc., which was the leading manufacturer in the U.S. of Air Drills and had a large presence in the former Soviet Union. In 1996, Case Corporation bought the Concord Company and that’s when Amity Technology was founded.
The company now produces sugar beet harvesters, defoliators and a beet cart and does business all around the world.
“There’s a lot of pressure to live up to what your grandfather, father and uncles have done on one side,” said Dahl. “But on the other side, somebody gave me great advice 40 years ago when I first got involved in manufacturing. ‘Don’t compare yourself. If you do, you’ll never feel fully satisfied. Do what you believe is the right thing.’”
It’s interesting how so many manufacturers, especially in agriculture, have their roots in North Dakota, although it might almost seem counter-intuitive.
“It’s a terrible spot from a logistics standpoint. You’re as far away from an ocean as you can be for logistics, and you never would locate a Bobcat factory in Gwinner, North Dakota,” said Dahl. However, there’s one thing that Dahl believes separates this region from the rest of the world.
“The Chinese cannot compete with Bobcat because of how efficiently it’s built. And so, it’s an incredible group of forward-looking people and technology that just allows them to win everywhere in the world. I think once you get an infrastructure like what was developed around Bobcat, and then, of course, Steiger Tractor, all of a sudden you have loads of suppliers and talented people in the area who provide expertise and really great service to support the factories. The same thing happened out of Doug Burgum’s Great Plains Software. All of a sudden, you have all the spinoffs and support for the software industry. We’re very fortunate in that we had the diversification.”
Because of the legacy set by Dahl’s grandfather, North Dakota has become a place recognized for manufacturing. In fact, according to David Lehman, Advanced Manufacturing Business Development Manager for the North Dakota Department of Commerce, manufacturing makes up about six percent of the state’s economy.
But North Dakota manufacturing isn’t just affecting our state, it’s affecting change on a global level.
Beyond North Dakota
In the 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev began to open the Soviet Union to the west in a program called perestroika. That coupled with the fact that farms in Russia can be over one million acres made the country a perfect territory to expand into. Since then, they have increased their presence in eastern Europe. In fact, in any given year, 30-45 percent of Amity’s business comes from overseas markets.
Deciding to break into this market wasn’t an easy decision and involved a lot of diligent market research. However, after looking into it, Dahl and his team decided this was the right move for them.
”We built a product that was proven to delight customers all over the US and Canada,” said Dahl. “We were very good at increasing yields, saving 80 percent of fuel for an operator and producing great crops. So, we knew the probability of the machine working well was very high.”
Through the process of getting into a global market, Dahl learned a lot. However, the number one piece of advice that he has is to learn the territory and the people.
“You cannot do enough connecting with reality,” said Dahl. “In some cases, we have tried to sell prematurely to an area. But you need to really know that your product fits well and you can be successful. And not just with the machine, but all the product support, service and parts. If you want to have one or two years of success, that’s easy, but if you want to be there for 10 years, you have to have significant commitment to parts and service.”
And while Amity, Bobcat and several other manufacturers have proven that North Dakota businesses can compete on a global scale, manufacturing is going through a massive change and nowhere is that more evident than at Amity Technology.
Blurring the Line Between Manufacturing and Technology
Here’s a hypothetical question for you: Is Amity Technology a manufacturer or a tech company? While you look at it on the face level, it might seem obvious they’re a manufacturer, but dive deeper and you’ll discover that they really are also a technology company.
In fact, new technology is being born in the offices of Amity Technology in the form of FarmQA, a new company that was founded and funded by Amity Technology. Now its own company, FarmQA produces software as a service for managing your agronomy business. The first app they have created is a crop scouting app for recording the condition of the fields and the crops an agronomist manages.
In agriculture, there are so many different data points that it is easier to predict and cure human disease than it is to affect agronomic change. This insane amount of data was the reason why FarmQA was founded by a team of veteran software professionals pulled from talent of Great Plains Software, which eventually was bought out by Microsoft.
“When we originally started, we said, ‘We need to start collecting as much of this data as we can if we ever want to affect agronomic change.’ Essentially, that was our big nexus in the beginning,” said Jeff Kamstra, Chief Operating Officer. “So, we formed a handful of partnerships with companies that were doing various interesting sensors in areas like meteorological, soil sciences, plant varieties and things like that.”
While it’s a drastic change from their normal business, it has a special mission to Dahl.
“My dad, on his deathbed two weeks before he died, one of his main questions was, ‘What are you doing that’s new and that’s going to help people in the future?’” said Dahl. “Somebody in our FarmQA meeting said, ‘What we are doing is not easy but if it was easy, everybody would be doing it exactly the way we are doing it.’ The key is to do the hard things different than what others are doing, but do them well. Figure out what that is.”
Having an accurate understanding of all a farmer’s data is increasingly important because the area of opportunity is so narrow.
“A traditional farmer, if you started farming today or inherited a form from your father or your family, you get about 40 tries. You get to walk up to the plate 40 times and swing the bat. That is your career,” said Kamstra. “I like that analogy because when you go to a grower specifically and say, ‘If you were to do this, we think we can increase your yield.’ He or she is forced to answer the question of, ‘But this is the way we’ve always done it and that is what we know.’ So, do we really trust that?”
From weather to crop scouting, FarmQA’s goal is to continue looking at how they can help farmer’s address other agronomy related scenarios. While it has massive goals, the mission is simple.
“I challenge our team to think in terms of, ‘What can we do that can add a 10 to 1 return for the farmer?” said Dahl. “Why do farmers buy fertilizer? They’ve done the math and they say, ‘If I don’t put fertilizer down, I get this.’ Generally, they will see two to one or three to one return on their fertilizer dollars. The ROI is what they think of.”
North Dakota Trade Office
After the success of Amity Technology worldwide, Dahl was an inaugural member of the NDTO board of directors. As a membership-based, private/public partnership, the NDTO provides education, research, engagement, advocacy and expertise for North Dakota companies to grow their export business.
Export Assistant Program
- Identifies, screens and places talented graduate students within North Dakota businesses that want to expand their global business opportunities.
Trade Missions and Reverse Missions
Specialty Crop Program
- A reimbursement program providing funding to eligible business concerns participating in NDTOled trade missions with a specialty crop focus.
- A financial reimbursement program designed to assist small North Dakota businesses in growing their international exports.
North Dakota exports by the numbers
- Trade supports nearly 105,000 JOBS in North Dakota
- 82% of North Dakota exporters consist of small – and medium sized companies with less than 500 workers
- 1 IN 3 ACRES of agricultural product is exported
- North Dakota exported $7.9 BILLION in merchandise in 2018
- North Dakota merchandise is exported to 147 COUNTRIES
- Foreign-owned companies employ over 12,000 WORKERS in North Dakota
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