Robert Daugherty & Valmont
In 1946, Robert Daugherty was a young Marine coming home after World War II. He was from Omaha and a self-described "city kid," but he knew something about agriculture. His father, Robert Daugherty Sr., owned one of the larger livestock commission firms at the Omaha Stock Yards. During the summers, young Robert worked in the stockyards, unloading cattle and other livestock that farmers were hiring his father to sell.
"I used to go with my father," Daugherty recalls. "He'd call on his farm customers, and I would go with him as a young man. So, I got to know an awful lot about agriculture."
After WWII, Robert was looking for a business opportunity and he came across a farmer by the name of Sam McCleneghan from Valley, Nebraska, who had built some farm equipment for his own use. McCleneghan had been selling a few of his inventions like a crop elevator to move farm commodities from the ground to barns, corn cribs or grain bins. Daugherty bought a half interest in McCleneghan's small shop for $5,000. They had "two or three employees," but Daugherty optimistically named the company Valley Manufacturing.
His first big break came when an uncle introduced Robert to a buyer from the huge catalog and retail company Sears Roebuck. Sears needed to add an elevator to their farm equipment line. The buyer was impressed by Daugherty, and Sears ordered 1,000 elevators to be built in the next year. Orders for speed jacks, wagon hoists, universal joints, and other esoteric items followed.
"We didn't have a factory or anything," Daugherty says. "We built them [the elevators] outside. And when it rained and the weather was bad, we didn't work. And when the sun was out, why we did. And that's how we started business."
Before long, Valley Manufacturing had over 100 employees. Then the farm recession of 1952 hit, and Daugherty went looking for ways to diversify. An employee told him about Frank Zybach and the center pivot.
Daugherty admits he knew nothing about irrigation before talking with Zybach. But Daugherty listened, talked with a farmer using the system and decided, "You know, this might be something that had a future."
In 1954, Daugherty bought the patent rights for the center pivot irrigation system from Zybach and Trowbridge for the promise of five percent of future royalties. But, the promising technology took a while to take off. In 1955, Valley built only seven systems. Five years later, they built 50. In this video interview, Daugherty remembers those early days of the company and working with Frank Zybach.
The early systems were not quite reliable, Daugherty now says. So the company continued to innovate. They built a variable-speed drive so differing amounts of water could be applied with each 360º revolution of the pivot. They installed end guns to reach further out. They found a way to automatically shut off the system if water pressure dropped or if the towers got too far out of alignment. And they discovered that fertilizer and pesticides could be applied through the irrigation system saving farmers time and money. Gradually demand grew as more and more farmers were able to see the success their neighbors were having.
Experience showed that center pivots produced huge savings in labor costs. With gated pipe systems, one man could irrigate 320 to 480 acres, opening valves in the morning, monitoring the water as it runs down the rows, closing valves when water reaches the end, then moving pipe to another section of the field. If that same farmer could buy and install several pivot systems, one man could supervise the irrigation of 1,200 to 2,000 acres.
Through much of the 1950s and 60s, Valley had the market for center pivot systems pretty much to itself. Their patent protected Valley until 1969. And the market grew. By 1970, there were over 2,000 center pivot systems in Nebraska alone. And while the semi-arid regions of the Great Plains were the biggest market for pivots, the company had begun to sell systems around the world.
Even before their patent ran out, competing companies sprang up, and Daugherty's attorneys were busy suing for patent infringement. In 1967, the company changed its name to Valmont a combination of the two towns closest to it main facility, Valley and Fremont. Today, Valmont sells about half of the center pivot systems built around the world. The company has diversified and now operates 34 facilities in 14 countries. They employee 5,200 people worldwide, with about 1,500 in Nebraska. The company headquarters are in Omaha.
Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First published in 2006. A partial bibliography of sources is here.