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Barney Habicht
Barney Habicht

The asphalt man who changed the harvest Add to ...

The Western Roto-Thresh harvester never really had a heyday: Only about 50 were ever made. But this obscure machine changed the way farmers worldwide harvested their crops. The man who brought it to the world, Barney Habicht, died on Nov. 14 at the age of 95.

A conventional combine cut the crop and fed it through a threshing cylinder onto a straw walker. Designed to imitate the shaking action of a human arm winnowing grain, this was a vibrating conveyor belt. “Shake and bake,” Habicht dismissively called it. Its reciprocating parts wore out quickly, and some of the grain would go out with the straw, especially on hilly ground. It was also prone to plugging in wet conditions. Since the 1930s manufacturers had experimented with centrifugal force to separate grain, but no one had come up with anything that worked in the field.

During the 1960s, Fred and Bill Streich, brothers who farmed in Manitoba, spent a winter in their shop tossing grain-and-straw mixtures into a drum they had built of netting and slats, powered with a small gasoline engine. Excited by the very high capacity separation they achieved, and the fact that no grain went out with the straw, they looked for a manufacturer. Through a University of Saskatchewan innovation showcase they met Ron McCrostie, who was selling McKee Harvester equipment in Saskatoon. McCrostie immediately recognized the concept’s potential, as did the university. But they needed someone to make it work in the field.

That someone was just upstairs. Above the McKee shop was one belonging to Asphalt Services, whose mechanical superintendent and “go-to” man for developing new machinery was Barney Habicht. Paving companies developed a lot of their own equipment, both to save money and to keep staff employed through the off-season. Habicht was brilliant. He could look at a problem, sleep on it, and wake up with a way to address it. He’d made a big water wagon out of an old railway tank car, and the company’s first-ever self-propelled hydraulic compactor. And he understood rotary separation intimately, since the paving industry separated different grades of gravel this way.

Habicht, however, was not interested in taking on another project. “They kept after me,” he recalled in a 1999 interview with Saskatchewan’s Western Development Museum, which has two Roto-Thresh combines. He finally gave in and spoke with his superiors, “and we went and had a meeting up at the university with the engineers up there. And it was decided that we would do a joint research project.” Asphalt Services would do the mechanical work and the university would supply testing equipment.

That’s how an asphalt man revolutionized farming. He designed a combine that began conventionally, with a standard header and threshing cylinder – but “once it went through the cylinder then the conventional was into a new era of rotary separation,” Habicht proudly recalled. A 5-1/2-foot-diameter perforated, corrugated drum, revolving at 30 rpm, created a centrifugal force field slightly greater than gravity, coaxing the grain to fall out through the drum’s perforations, while the corrugations and a stripping auger channelled the straw toward the exhaust end.

By the fall of 1968 a prototype was ready for testing, and they took it out in the field near St. Denis, east of Saskatoon. It was a very wet year, and the conventional combine they were using as a yardstick would plug up every quarter mile, but the Roto-Thresh just kept going. It did a very high capacity run with very low loss. Excited, the team built a self-propelled model and took it south for the American harvest in 1969. By beginning in Texas and working their way north, they could extend the testing season by several months.

John Deere’s head combine production man saw the machine that summer. “Don’t let go,” he told Habicht. “You just keep going, because you’ve got the best idea yet and it’s going to be the coming thing.”

Besides the rotary separator, Habicht patented a vacuum cleaning system. He also insisted on the use of standard parts, which made his machine much cheaper to maintain. Asphalt Services created a subsidiary company, and in 1973, with 49 per cent buy-in from provincial economic development funds, and a manufacturing plant in an old airplane hangar, it produced its first commercial model. This sold to a farmer near the Roto-Thresh testing grounds. Other sales followed, and customers were pleased with the machine’s efficiency and versatility, as well as the lower repair bills. However, a combine is not a small investment, running close in price to a house; and Western Roto-Thresh was a small company without a dealer network, using an unfamiliar and still developing technology. Toss in a souring economy, and not many machines sold.

Whether because of soft sales or pressure from large manufacturers, the government funds abruptly dried up, and Asphalt Services decided to cut its losses. The remaining combines were liquidated, and the plant converted to manufacture heavy construction equipment. The patents lapsed, and soon John Deere and other full-line manufacturers picked them up, continuing to perfect the ideas. Nearly every combine presently in use derives in some way from the system Barney Habicht developed.

Habicht was born on April 28, 1916, in Carlyle, Sask., to B.G. and Margaret Habicht. His father, who was killed in France near the end of the First World War, never saw him. The boy grew up fatherless until his mother remarried when he was 10, and he found himself with five younger siblings. He left home early, working for farmers as a hired hand through the Dirty Thirties. One paid for him to take a one-year farm and industrial mechanics course at the University of Saskatchewan. Had times been better he probably would have gone on to study engineering, but in 1938 money was scarce, so he went back to working wherever he could.

In 1946 he and a brother bought a small freight transport company. It was while hauling petroleum and asphalt that he met the owners of Asphalt Services, who sought his help repairing their equipment. In 1950 they hired him as equipment supervisor, and he continued with ASL until he retired in 1981. He continued to use his mechanical genius as a consultant and to modify his house to enable his wife, Myrtle, who had MS, to remain at home. After her death in 2001, with the help of a care aide, Habicht remained independent almost until his own death.

He leaves four children and their families, and many farmers who have never heard of the man behind their combines.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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