IN THE OFF SEASON, growers in the Blackfoot, Idaho, vicinity brave treacherous roads and near-blizzard weather in order to check out the newest cutter Milestone has to offer.
Rather than just selling their equipment and then thinking their job is done, Milestone is actually training the growers how to start and run the new equipment.
After all, what good is a machine unless you know how to run it?
Milestone in Blackfoot is hard at work not only manufacturing quality, innovative equipment, but they're also hard at work interacting with customers in two important ways: training customers on how to use their equipment, and listening to growers' ideas for improvements.
SEED CUTTER 101
Danny Mitchell, president of Milestone, says that every new or used cutter they sell, whether out of Blackfoot or through their dealer network, will not go out the door unless there's a training session attached to it.
"If we were selling directly to Russia, we'll either go there ourselves and start that machine, or we're going to have someone come here," Mitchell says. "We don't want that machine to go out there and just run. It can either do the worst job or it can do the best job."
Growers are instructed on several important adjustment procedures that must be completed prior to starting the machine. Growers are also educated on what the cutter is capable of doing, in the range of the size and variety of the desired seed. Milestone provides lots of leeway so growers can determine what range works best for their operation, whether they want an ounce and a half average return or 3-oz average return, and it is always a blocky set.
"It's what the grower wants," he says. "There is no standardized setting. We're just showing him what that cutter is capable of doing and what works best for his operation."
As a result of these cutting classes Milestone started about 12 to 15 years ago, cutter sales doubled.
In 1961, Merthin Miles, Scott Brown and Owen Ward made a commitment to build a seed cutter they believed would change the potato industry. Through their energy and resources, along with hard work and many trials, the Milestone seed cutter became a reality. The first product built by Milestone-and the principal machine manufactured to this date-has made Milestone one of the most outstanding potato handling equipment manufacturers in the world.
The company used to be two separate entities: Milestone and E.M. Tanners, which was a contract manufacturer for Milestone. Ward owned Milestone until his passing in 1991. Mitchell and Lynn Turner, who have both been employed at Milestone since the 1970s, bought the consolidated company in October of 2007. Being that it's a small company, Mitchell admits, "Everybody's got more than one job, including me and Lynn." Their spouses even work there, which has been a positive thing for the company.
Milestone's first big breakthrough was the 24-inch wide seed cutter, which replaced the work of 20 men. Milestone hasn't looked back since. With increasing production needs, Milestone has expanded the capacity and accuracy of its seed cutters. In 1990 they introduced the first 60-inch seed cutter, capable of cutting 40,000 pounds of seed potatoes an hour, and in 2001 the first 72-inch cutter, which has the capability of cutting 55,000 pounds an hour.
The company has been at its present location, near the banks of the Snake River off Highway 39, since 1994.
LISTENING AND TESTING
The talking isn't all one-sided. Milestone pays attention to what growers are asking for, so their company can turn out even better products.
"We're always listening to our growers, because we don't know all the answers to cutting seed," he says. "The growers have got the ideas."
As an example, there was one customer who explained to Milestone reps about a roller he was using to prevent the tuber from going end-over-end over the sizing table. Though Milestone thought they had tried everything, they gave this roller a go.
"It worked like a million bucks," Mitchell says. Whereas before, nine times out of 10 the tuber turned on the table incorrectly. With just one roller, nine times out of 10 it turned on the table correctly.
"It was a really simple thing, but it worked."
This year, Milestone introduced the double seed piece divider, in an effort to improve cutting efficiency. Previously, farm workers would stand at the cutter for hours on end, staring at all sizes of potatoes, cut and un-cut, going down the conveyor belt-all bunched together-until workers would become fatigued and cut just about anything.
"Their efficiency, their accuracy, was minimal," Mitchell points out.
The double seed piece divider separates the whole potatoes and large seed sets from the small seed sets, so the only seed pieces workers are looking at are those they need to cut. Based on tests they've conducted, the double seed piece divider has improved efficiency by approximately 50 percent.
Currently, Milestone has three patents on that cutter: the sizer adjust, sizing roller and the cutting system. While they're still waiting on getting the double seed piece divider patented, Mitchell believes that in the next five years every cutter they produce will have this unit on it.
The testing doesn't stop there. On November 13 of last year, they decided to conduct a comparison test between a 1993 60-inch Milestone potato seed cutter and a 2008 72-inch Milestone seed cutter. Using 117 equally sized potatoes for each cutter, they determined that waste from the 1993 model was as high as 18 percent inaccurate cuts, and zero on the newer model.
An independent study conducted at McCains in Burley, Idaho, that same month on the Milestone Debris Eliminator Blender determined that the Milestone MDESB eliminates an average of 90 percent of debris that is less than 2 1/2 inches in diameter, including corn crowns.
Besides seed cutters, Milestone also has developed a liquid seed piece applicator that Syngenta uses exclusively for their product application. Milestone also proudly provides a same-as new warranty on their re-manufactured equipment.
But educating the grower when selling the equipment is always key. As the saying goes, it takes years to gain a customer but seconds to lose him.
"If he's not happy, he'll tell everyone," he says.