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There are two words that set T-L Irrigation apart from other manufacturers of pivot irrigation equipment: “We’re farmers.” Ingenious design, excellent engineering, quality manufacturing, and quick, thorough service and support also differentiate this company. To be sure, each of these has contributed to the company’s success. They’re the reasons T-L is one of just a handful of center pivot manufacturing companies that survived of the 50 or so that started up in the late 1960s.
Yet most important of all down through the years has been that simple, but so meaningful sentence proclaiming, “We’re farmers.” The man who fi rst expressed this philosophy–and who continues to do so a half-century after founding T-L Irrigation–is President LeRoy Thom. That’s why new products and modifi cations have always first been thoroughly tested on T-L’s own fi elds, and why the fi nal decision to market them is based on how a farmer would view and use them to make money. As LeRoy points out, “That’s company policy. We wouldn’t think of selling a new product unless we tested it for at least a year ourselves on our own farms. We learned a long time ago that what might look so good on the drawing board to an engineer doesn’t always work out in the mud.”
For instance, one obvious and important concern a farmer has before writing his check for a center-pivot system is how long he can expect to keep it working with minimal maintenance. T-L has tested units in Arizona that ran 4,000 hours a year in order to get a handle on this vital question. The brutal dozen or so years the fi rst center-pivots installed there have operated are the equivalent of 40 or 50 years of normal usage. And, yes, they’re still irrigating crops. The “We’re farmers” thinking runs through the entire company, too. As LeRoy notes, “I don’t think there’s a one of our 250 employees who doesn’t have some farm connection, whether engineer, salesman, in the plant, or management. This makes a big difference.” Also, he’s proud that almost certainly no other irrigation manufacturer has as many second generation employees working with it, either in the plant or in management. One of many payoffs to customers from this “We’re farmers” approach to design, manufacturing, and testing is pace-setting warranties that are two to three times better than any competitive pivot system made.
As you can see from “T-L Irrigation–Through the Years”, the company’s accomplishments have been many. But, as Paul Harvey says, “Here’s the rest of the story….” LeRoy was born on a Ravenna, Nebraska farm, growing up in the “Dirty 30s”. He was in training as a Navy pilot when WWII ended. On his return to the University of Nebraska he decided to combine his agricultural background with engineering. After graduating, LeRoy and newly married wife, Jean Ballance, went to Scottsbluff, Nebraska. Here he supervised seven counties as a district engineer for the Soil Conservation Service. He later worked for two-and-a-half years for the Foxley company at Deer Lodge, Montana, as irrigation engineer and farm boss of 45,000 acres.
LeRoy and his wife then moved to Hastings, Nebraska. For a while he traveled the state as a sales representative for Farm Improvement Company, which sold hand-moved irrigation systems. His interest and expertise in irrigation led to the formation of T-L Irrigation Company as a distributor of irrigation systems in Nebraska. LeRoy was, of course, the “T” and the operating partner. J. G. Love was the “L” and the fi nancial partner until LeRoy bought him out six years later. LeRoy and Jean, who served as secretary and bookkeeper, and Art Neal were the only initial employees. And, although he isn’t the “L” as many people have thought, Bob Lubken started work the next year. He still has close ties and is considered a part-timer.
T-L also began distributing products for several other manufacturers–which as a result meant that LeRoy was on the road selling at least fi ve days of almost every week. He now says he regrets not having the family time then that he’d have liked. But, he points out that this is often the price an entrepreneur has to pay in the early years of establishing a growing company. There’s a story typical of LeRoy’s idea of fairness that a few oldtimers at T-L still talk about. The Habco Dryers he was also selling then normally retailed for $3,300. LeRoy had fi rm orders one rainy year for all the 150 dryers the company could ship him. The dryers were in great demand. Some farmers offered to pay more money, one as much as $10,000, for a dryer if LeRoy would sell him a dryer instead of to someone already promised one. That didn’t happen.
During the summer of 1969, a dozen years after T-L began to manufacture and sell a tow-line irrigation system, its fi rst two centerpivots were set up in fi elds for testing. T-L also began the fi rst of numerous side-by-side tests, with one unit sporting webbed tracks like a snowmobile and the other relying on inflated tires. The following year 18 systems were sold, the fi rst of the thousands that have since irrigated crops in 44 states and in more than 30 countries. These early center pivots were built with jackshafts and chain drives. LeRoy considers the 1973 switch to planetary gear box drives as one of the key factors in farmer acceptance of T-L systems. As he points out, “It was different, unique, and also the best.” Only T-L center pivots operate continuously without stops and starts thanks to a unique hydrostatic design that relies on hydraulic oil flow rather than electricity.
“We looked at electricity before building our first center pivot system,” LeRoy remembers. “We had some reasons why we decided against powering with electricity. “First of all, farmers work with hydraulics every day and understand them. They usually can make what repairs are needed themselves.” “Second, we worried about having to send a service man 50 miles or possibly further just to change a fuse.” “Third, we were concerned about the safety factor, and also the potential liability of the Company.” After deciding on hydraulics as a foundation, the next choice was between water or oil hydraulics. Water hydraulics was eliminated due to many wells pumping sand and the resulting valve problem potential. The result has been a safe machine that requires the least possible amount of maintenance, the real goals of LeRoy’s “We’re farmers” thinking.
“The next to best thing farmers tell me is, I have run my T-L for five years and it has never stopped, it has made me money. Of course the best thing I hear is, I want to buy another T-L.”
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