Jerrell Harden sat in his workshop and stared at his mother’s wheelchair. She had fallen again after forgetting to lock it. He was determined to modify the standard chair to protect her safety and force it to lock without rolling when she stood.It took more than two hours to think of a solution and another two days to work it out in his mind, sketch the design and build a prototype. The result–a safety bar attachment that forces the wheelchair to lock–earned his 11th patent and put an end to his mother’s wheelchair-related falls. It was the first non-agricultural patent for the Federal Land Bank of South Alabama (FLBA) customer. His other 10 patents were received for farm equipment inventions, which have been sold to eight companies. Critical to his success has been the creative collaboration with his son, Russell, and brother, Leo. In fact, Russell was the lead inventor on an attachment for a narrow-row cotton picker, which was recently sold to John Deere and now is leased to firms in China and Brazil.”All of our patents have come from disappointment with the equipment we use,” says Harden, who farms cotton near Brundidge, Ala. “When something doesn’t work the way we think it should, we try to improve it.” He estimates that it takes an average of two years and costs from $10,000 to $20,000 to obtain a patent.His most noteworthy invention, developed with Leo in the early 1970s, was the Super Seeder (the name was later changed to Ro-Till). The invention earned them the “No-Till Farmer of the Year” award in 1978 from No-Till magazine and the “Man of the Year” award from Progressive Farmer magazine in 1984. In 1982, they were featured on CNN News. The equipment was sold to Brown Manufacturing and marketed nationally by Bush Hog. At the request of the company, Leo went to work for Bush Hog to train their salesmen, and he is still a representative with Bush Hog in Virginia. Ro-Till combines the best of conventional and no-till farming. In one pass, the planter prepares the seedbed; the row is tilled, but the mulch remains in the middle, conserving moisture. To date, three companies have sold more than 3,000 units, and 1.5 million acres are grown using the method.”When I see my neighbor or a farmer in Georgia using our inventions, it’s rewarding–to know we’ve done something to help someone else,” he says. He also enjoys collaborating with Russell, who runs the family’s poultry operation. They bounce ideas off each other, which helps the creative process.”Russell is more innovative than I am,” he says. “He’s also a gifted woodworker. When we’re solving a problem, he thinks in wood, and I think in metal.”Harden spends his spare time in his shop and focuses on problem solving all day long. “I solve problems in my sleep, riding in the car and while I’m farming. “You have to work out the idea in your mind before you put it on paper. We might have two or three ideas going at one time. When we have one worked out, we sketch it. Then we’ll build a prototype. Once we’re satisfied, we’ll apply for a patent and call a company and give them a demonstration. If they’re interested, we’ll negotiate price and royalties,” he says.His reward is knowing he has helped other people.”Everything he’s invented is something that will help him and other people,” says Kenneth Smith, manager of the FLBA of South Alabama’s Enterprise branch office.Harden also loves to see a final product. “Ideas are simple after they’re perfected. People will look at something you invented and say, ‘I could have done that.’ But they don’t realize that it takes hours of thinking and numerous disappointments before you get it right. There’s a lot of head-scratching while you’re working on it but a lot of satisfaction when it’s over,” he says.EDITOR’S NOTE: Reprinted from Landscapes, Winter 2001, published by the Farm Credit Bank of Texas.
Turning Problems Into Patents