A screwdriver changed a farmer’s life path

For Brian Olson, who made his mark with PowerPin, safety awards mean less than saving a life or preventing injury

The epiphany happens instantly for some people. For others, the revelation is gradual. For Brian Olson, the motivation to focus his life on safe farm equipment came in mere minutes.

Olson recalls the day in 1988 when it finally struck him full force that the process of moving farm equipment was inherently a very dangerous activity.

“It really came clear to me almost suddenly one day when I had to move some equipment,” says Olson, founder and proprietor of PowerPin and recent recipient of the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineering’s Evelyn Rosentreter Award for Exceptional Contributions to Safety in Agriculture for his Hit N Hitch.

“My farmland was spread out all over the place,” he said.

“I had to pick up a rod weeder 14 miles away. I drove my tractor all the way up there and went to hook on and the damned draw pin wouldn’t fit the rod weeder hole, so I pulled it home with a screwdriver in the hole. The stupid things we farmers do.”

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All the way home, Olson kept thinking that hydraulics are standardized, three-point hitch is standardized, power take-off speeds are standardized. So why can’t the industry standardize the drawbar hitching system. Like all farmers, Olson had seen his share of farm accidents. There was no doubt in his mind that a standardized hitch-pin system would save lives.

“My mom lost her arm in a farm accident. My dad lost his hand in a farm accident. I found my neighbour one day underneath his tractor with a jump start accident. I got tangled up in a p.t.o. one day and I was lucky to get out of it alive. Those kinds of events really wake you up, but then you’ve got to do something about them,” he said.

“When I farmed, the onus for safety when hooking up to an implement was 100 percent on the farmer. I knew there had to be a safer way. Machinery was getting larger and it was increasingly difficult to see the implement hook-up and manage the machinery.”

Three years after his screwdriver hitch-pin experience, he decided to turn his motivation into cold hard steel. He incorporated PowerPin in 1989, and his first invention came to the market in 1991, about the time farmers were starting to buy big round balers and were driving around with two tractors to load them. His response was to develop the PowerPin hitch system so the operator could load the bales with the front-end loader and then back up to the wagon, hitch it up and go.

“The breakthrough came because farmers just didn’t want to pay $500 for the system. They said they can get off the tractor a lot of times for $500. So I had to develop something that allowed the operator to stay up in the cab but didn’t cost him anything. We had to standardize the hitch,” he said.

“By the time I got that award at the Farm Progress Show, John Deere was in a situation where they knew they had to do something about hitching safety, so they flew guys up to look at my PowerPin system. They were interested, but I already had it under patent pending and I was just waiting for the paperwork to come through in the mail.”

Olson said he was getting ready to drive to Waterloo, Ont., to meet with Deere when his lawyer called to say he’d received the patent papers. Olson told his lawyer to just forward the patent papers in the mail and he’d look at them when he got back to Fort Qu’Appelle, Sask. There was a surprise waiting for Olson in the John Deere boardroom.

“I walked into the meeting and there was my patent sitting on their table,” he said.

“They have people at the patent office picking up patents on farm equipment the day the papers are issued. A patent is a public document, it’s available to anyone. They saw it before I did.”

Olson said the initiative for innovations come from staff as much as they do from him. The award-winning Hit N Hitch is a good example.

“Staff simply got tired of struggling to hitch up our company trailers and personal trailers. We asked, ‘why?’ he said.

“As a hitch company that harnesses 700 horsepower farm tractors, we figured we certainly could improve on-road hitching just as we did for ag equipment.

“When we started looking at on-road hitching we realized there had been no innovation or improvement forever. Sometimes the marketplace just gets used to bad designs that get so old nobody questions their function. This is what has happened with on-road hitching.”

Safety is of paramount importance at PowerPin, not only the safety of farmers but also safety of its own staff. Olson said there has not been a single work day lost to injury since moving into his current factory in 2005.

“That would make me just throw up if one of the kids around here got hurt.”

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