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Key Idea: Think for Yourself

Bob Sakata finds better ways to serve his employees and customers by watching, listening and thinking on his own.

Key Question:


Bob is a member of the National Onion Growers Association and other groups made up of vegetable growers. He learns from his colleagues and enjoys their company, however, the most significant accomplishment of Bob's life came because he did his own thinking.
Q: What did thinking for himself do for Bob's business?

The 20-year pursuit to develop his sweetcorn seed started with the idea that automated harvesting would be possible if there were only one ear of corn per stalk. While others were trying to grow more ears per stalk, Bob was doing the opposite. He could see that labor, both the time it takes to hand harvest and the toll hard physical labor takes on workers, could be minimized in the long run if corn could be harvested by a machine.

Q:  Why did this line of thinking take such courage?

A:  Because he was all alone. To build his confidence as he reached for the goal of one ear per stalk, he got help from a trained genetic engineer and it took 20 years for them to come up with the super sweet variety that the whole industry is now planting.

So, when you decide to go against the grain, or to swim upstream, you can look for the other mavericks to join you. This is a good lesson to learn; Bob did not get advice from another farmer. He got it from a professional in a related field. It might be good to think of this as a zigzag line to the goal. We would like to find the straight path, but those rarely exist.

Q: Do you care about anything enough to work on it for 20 years?

A: If the answer is "Yes," you'll either achieve that goal or surpass it. Most of us simply give up too quickly or don't find the thing that holds our fascination long enough to truly master it.

Q: How has Bob's invention impacted his business?

A: The corn is now harvested by machine. With one tractor and driver, corn is picked efficiently and the employees who used to do this are now working in the processing plant sorting and packing the corn. Employees don't have to be out in the hot sun, walking the narrow rows, carrying heavy loads and breathing the dust from the fields.

Q: Is starting from scratch the only way to invent a product?

A: No. Bob talked about the machine he uses to husk the corn. It was basically invented by a company in Oregon. Before purchasing the machine, he recommended changes that would prevent the machine from bruising his prized sweet corn. Incremental changes can be very powerful. Bob has no formal engineering training, but he is responsible for a number of equipment developments that are industry standards today.

Q: How did Bob's mechanic explain Bob's genius?

A: Bob has common sense. I think your instincts tell you what is best and another label for this could be common sense. For example, Bob invented the single rib tire then had the John Deere people manufacture it. He didn't ask the John Deere design team to come up with a tire that requires little steering on the part of the equipment operator. He did it himself because it was common sense to him. However, he didn't waste his time making the tire.

Just because you buy equipment from a big supplier, don't think it has all the answers. You are in the trenches and you probably know best about what you need to do your work. When we just accept what others offer, we may be settling for an inferior product. In fact, many big companies have customer councils and aggressively poll us for ideas. You can't be bothered with manufacturing everything you invent unless you see doing this as an opportunity that won't take you away from your core goals.

You may have studied Howard Kent of Ironbound Supply. He has a great business selling pipes, values and fittings. He invented a product for the tennis market using PVC pipe which is one of the products he sells. However, taking his invention to the marketplace turned out to be a terrible idea. It distracted him from his core business and it brought in almost no profits.

Bob's innovation is always focused on his core business. He is looking at the details of each task and asking how he can make that task easier and if there is a better way to accomplish goal.

Think about it

Are you thinking for yourself or going along with the best practices of your industry? Do you have ideas that you believe could have a positive impact on your industry? It is worth the energy? What would happen if you idea was implemented globally?

Clip from: Sakata Farms

Brighton, Colorado: In this episode of our show, we return to the farm to meet an inventor and one of America's biggest vegetable growers. His name is Bob Sakata and his life's journey, his cause, has been to lighten the load of the farm worker.  He is driven because he does not forget all the back-breaking work he did as a child. Here is a man with a deep affection for life. He is naturally gracious and has a generous spirit.  His goal is to make work easier for the people he loves, and he has.

Since his earliest days on the farm back in the 1940, Bob Sakata has invented many labor saving devices; many of which you will see in this episode.  Bob is an activist;  he loves farming.  On his 3200+ acres grows some of the the sweetest corn on earth because of Bob's seed cultivations.

Bob lobbied for the repeal of the death tax; and in June 2003, the farmers of America won their day on Capitol Hill. Yet, in a very real way, we all won. Keeping open space, seeking alternatives to urban sprawl, requires us all to embrace the source of our food,  the farmlands. 

We call small business owners New American Heroes because they are innovators, risk takers, and job generators.

A servant within his industry, Bob Sakata has been the President of the National Onion Association, the president of the National Sugarbeet Growers Association, a celebrated member of the Cooperative Extension Advisory Board at Colorado State University, a director or president of one of several irrigation ditch companies, a director of the Adams County Economic Development Board, a member of Colorado Food Safety Task Force, a local School Board president, an adviser to the USDA, and so much more.

Quite deservedly, he and his wife, Joanna, were inducted into the Agriculture Hall of Fame in 1999.  Now, meet Bob Sakata, an American icon, the farmer.

Go to all the Key Ideas & Video...

Hattie's blog about Sakata Farms

Sakata Farms

Bob Sakata, founder, owner

South 4th and Bromley Lane
PO Box 508
Brighton, Colorado 80601, CO 80601

Visit our web site: ../../page2463.html

Business Classification:

Year Founded: 1948

Think for Yourself

HATTIE: (Voiceover) Steve Kniss is in charge of maintenance. What do you do around here, Steve?

STEVE KNISS: You name it. If it's broke, I fix it.

HATTIE: The machines?

STEVE: Right.

HATTIE: And the machinery that goes into the fields?

STEVE: Right. All the machinery that goes in the field. Those harvesters you saw earlier are a little bit my specialty.

HATTIE: You've been here a long time?

STEVE: About 10 years.

HATTIE: Bob has been instrumental in bringing ideas into production such as the tires?


HATTIE: Have you ever seen anything like this?

STEVE: Yes. It's all common sense. This man has more common sense than anybody I've ever seen.

HATTIE: We were at the field earlier today and saw the machines harvesting. BOB: Harvesting mechanically.

HATTIE: ...and dumping--so they come here.

BOB: Right.

HATTIE: Now what happens when they get here?

BOB: Well, you saw...

HATTIE: ...and did you invent all that?

BOB: I don't know whether you could say I invented all that, but I drew it out and had this shop build it. The semi backs up against and unloads into the apron conveyor, which I call the big conveyor. And the girl that's sitting on top controls it all, and it gets dumped. It's just an efficient distribution system. But the most common distribution system is just the belt that goes around and around and around, and the girls pick it out of there. That's what I had the first one I built. There were always maybe the front 10 girls, always had the best, and the last 10 girls got the picking out. But in this distribution system that I made, everything goes in equal and it dumps.

HATTIE: 'Cause it comes down the trough and down to each worker.

BOB: Comes onto the belt. Right. One of the biggest labor-saving items up there, as you saw, our saw line and the dehusker. That is really something.

HATTIE: Did you invent those?

BOB: It was a company in Portland, Oregon, that made dehusking equipment for canning corn. So I flew up there and saw it. But for canning corn, it could be too severe and it could bruise the kernels, and it would get by because they cut the kernel off the cob and put it in the can. But for what we're doing, we cannot have any bruising at all. So I told them to put 40 durometer rubber, just plain rubber, nothing that rolled.

HATTIE: Did that solve the problem?

BOB: No. We put it in through there and it wouldn't husk anything. So the engineer over there says, `See, Mr. Sakata, I told you it won't work.' So I said, `Wait. Wait just a minute.' I said, `Do you have an air hose somewhere in here?' And he said, `Yep.' So I stood up on the machine and I put this air hose and put air on the husks. And soon as I put air on the husks, it opened the husk up and the rollers grabbed the husk and just husked it right off.


BOB: So all it took was air.

HATTIE: So you're proof that it's the small-business owners that are bringing the ideas to the forefront.

BOB: Yes. I grew up on a 10-acre farm and learned from the bottom up.

HATTIE: You listen to the people who are doing the work.

BOB: Yes, because I understand it because I started from there. All my employees here know that I'm the cheapest-paid man on the staff because I don't want to be owning yachts and airplanes and so forth. I have a greater pleasure of having a new John Deere tractor or having something that is more productive and more challenging.

HATTIE: So instead of buying a fancy car for yourself, you put the money into a tractor that's more comfortable, that's better for one of your employees to work with to make their life a little better?

BOB: That's right. I think the main thing is there are two things in this business that you have to be sensitive of. Number one, your employees, because they're the ones that make your company. And you have to try to make the workplace a pleasant workplace and try to make everything as easy as possible, and that is a ongoing challenge.

HATTIE: You have a lot of people who've been here a long time.

BOB: Yes. We're proud to tell you that we have third-generation people working here. That's rather unique on the farm because everybody wants to leave the farm, you know and get a city job. The second thing that we have to be cognizant of is the quality of our product. We are not satisfied by our product leaving here and backing up in the produce warehouse, whether it's Safeway or wherever it is. If they accept it there, we're not satisfied yet. We still scout inside the stores to make sure our product is the best of any.

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