Kennco Manufacturing, Inc., is located in Ruskin, Florida, and supplies equipment all over the world. Their 60,000 square feet of manufacturing facilities sits on 15 acres. They also have a Yuma, Arizona, facility that services their West Coast customers. Using their roots in a small business, Kennco gives its customers the personal attention they need to be successful.
Kennco’s mission is geared toward helping farmers do their work as efficiently as possible. Owner and CEO of Kennco Manufacturing, Brandy Evans, spoke of Kennco’s mission. “To build quality farm equipment of our own design at a profit, and continue growing and improving the business for decades to come,” she said. “Our equipment is designed to help the farmer save labor costs and increase yield. It’s also important that we have a quality and safe work environment so we can attract and retain the best staff possible. We are also active in our community helping charities, nonprofits, and schools.”
In 1973, Ken McElwain opened a welding shop and established Kennco. In 1975, he joined forces with Robin Knowles. Focusing on the agricultural industry, Kennco is working on ways to help farmers spend less and get high yields. When developing their products and machines, Kennco listened to their customers to create the best equipment possible for their target market.
“Ken and Robin met back in the ’60s while working for Franklin Racing,” said Brandy. “As I understand it, they formed their relationship there. After college graduation, Robin went to work for a foundry somewhere and Ken started building equipment for farmers here and there. Ruskin was then the ‘Tomato Capital of the World’ and there were tomato farmers everywhere. He contacted Robin and asked him to come and join him in the business. Robin did the engineering and business side of things and Ken ran the manufacturing side of things.”
“They worked with local growers and started building equipment that would help them reduce labor to form beds and lay plastic,” Brandy continued. “From there it grew and new products were added based on farmers’ needs. Through the years the roadblocks were probably the same as most businesses: cash flow, competition, keeping up with changing needs, people. Ken retired in the late 1990s/early 2000s and sold all of his stock to Robin.”
CannaBiz Journal: What type of business roadblocks did Ken and Robin have to overcome to create Kennco?
Brandy: Since the 2000s, the roadblocks have been evolving the company to include more technology and get our product to a wider geographic area. Back in the ’80s to the ’90s, they built equipment on the shop floor. The welders knew what to do, but the consistency was an issue. We’ve since moved to having engineers on staff to make drawings and document equipment so we have a consistent product. However, we’ve become known as the company that customizes. So a lot of our customers ask for things “their way.” Trying to sell a standard product is always our goal but we do build each piece to spec so that has always been a challenge. As our market has grown via the internet, we now ship our products all over the world and each farmer has different soil, different land issues, different water issues, different practices … so it makes having a quality standard product difficult.
CBJ: Brandy, please tell us about yourself.
Brandy: I have been with Kennco basically my whole life, as my father, Robin Knowles, is one of the founders. I used to work here after school and in the summers while in high school but never had any plans to work here as an adult, and definitely not to take over. I went off to college at Florida State University and, after graduating, I moved to the Washington, DC, area to make my mark. I was always drawn to that area and wanted to live there, so I did. I got a lower-level job at a computer training company and quickly starting moving my way up the ladder. After some promotions, I ended up running the training and education division of the DoD branch of Pearson Education. After about seven years in DC, I decided I wanted to come back to Florida to be closer to my family. So in 2005, I came back. I eventually took a job at Kennco while Robin was still running it. My sister also works here as the purchasing and inventory manager.
I started in the accounting department and began taking on more roles as other people left. After a couple of years, I approached my dad about buying his stock and taking over. He was close to retirement and had other ideas, but I had assumed a leadership role by that point and it all seemed to make sense. In 2013 he named me CEO when he retired and in 2014 I bought a majority of the stock from him. We all wear a lot of hats around here, so I manage the sales/marketing team, IT, and operations. I also handle all the HR and accounting functions (AR/AP, payroll, taxes, insurance, etc.)
CBJ: The website says you are locally owned and operated by employee stockholders. How does that work? What attributes of this business model make your company a success?
Brandy: In the past, the stockholders had been Robin and Ken. After Ken retired, Robin had all the stock and then sold some to a few employees. Currently, the stockholders are me, Robin, and my sister Chelsey. Robin no longer works here but Chelsey and I do. We’ve always felt that having stockholders in the company would empower those employees to make the best decisions for Kennco.
With decades of business successes, Kennco continuously strives to improve its products. They also are adaptable and on the lookout for new niche markets in the industrial agriculture sector. Their latest expansion involves supplying hemp growers with needed equipment for their farms. As the popularity of hemp has increased, so has Kennco’s business in that market.
Kennco noticed that many hemp farmers broadcast their seed all over their fields with the idea that it will yield as much volume of hemp at harvest time. There are no uniform rows. According to the Kennco, this works, but the farmer does not get the best possible quality of hemp. They observed that farmers who plant in rows of raised beds tend to produce fields that yield higher quality crops with more potent hemp flowers. The same equipment used to grow other crops can be used to grow industrial hemp, and Kennco would be happy to supply the equipment.
CBJ: How did Kennco find the industrial hemp niche?
Brandy: In 2018 we had a customer request some equipment for hemp. The equipment we make is for raised beds and/or growers using plastic mulch. The equipment needed to grow hemp was the same as the equipment needed to grow watermelons or tomatoes. So it fit. We have always had a variety of growers as customers—broccoli, garlic, tomatoes, strawberries, watermelons—but hemp caught our attention and we learned a bit more about it. On a hunch I had our website guy develop a page on our website. Because the type of equipment that hemp growers would need was EXACTLY our specialty. We’d been building bedders, plastic layers, transplanters, sprayers, etc., for decades.
We followed the news about legalizing hemp and made sure our marketing was done and we prepared for what could happen. Toward the end of 2018, we started getting a lot of inquiries for equipment through our website. On another hunch, we started building up some stock and getting ready. But again, since most all of our equipment is built with specific customizations to the growers, much of it was a gamble. Would they want one-row equipment? Three-row equipment? What size beds? Plant spacing? Etc.
Working with the sales team, who were fielding all the calls, we did more research to learn some of the best techniques to grow hemp. While we are not in the business to advise people how to farm (every place is different), we could tell them what other people are doing and make sure they had large enough tractors, the right size plastic, point out other things they may not have considered, etc. Once the Farm Bill passed, orders started coming in and we just tried to keep up. We ended up having to turn down some later orders because we just couldn’t deliver in time.
CBJ: How did Kennco break into the hemp farming market? Did the company have to make any changes to accommodate the hemp farmer?
Brandy: Our equipment is designed for the raised bed and plasticulture farming. It’s not based on what is being grown. So the only changes we’ve needed to make for the hemp market were our standard customizations: what size bed they are using and plant spacing. The rest is up to the customer needs and wants. Do they want a combo machine to make the bed and lay the plastic in one pass? Do they want separate machines for each operation? Do they want to make one row at a time or three? Do they want to fertilize the ground as they make the bed? It all depends on the grower’s land, how many acres they are farming, how many tractors they have, and their overall plan. [Because] we have been building this type of equipment for 46 years, the equipment has been tried and tested and we build it to last. Everything is made for them with their specifications. We also build the equipment heavy and sturdy. Some of our competition makes adjustable machines that are mass-produced, but they are lighter weight and less expensive. Those machines typically only last a few seasons. Our equipment will last for decades if taken care of.
According to Kennco, many growers have told them that their equipment usually pays for itself within one crop cycle.
CBJ: If someone wanted to start a large hemp farm, what equipment would you foresee them needing that Kennco could supply?
Brandy: Depending on the land—has it been farmed before? Is the soil compacted, or loose?
If prepping is required, a toolbar with bedding discs to disk up the soil.
Bedder: Our superbedder comes in single-row or multiple-rows configurations. For hemp, the most popular has been our three-row superbedder and plastic layer combo machine. This machine will make three beds and lay plastic mulch and drip tape in one pass. The soil needs to be tilled up first, though.
Plastic Layer: If they didn’t get a combo machine, then a separate machine to lay the plastic and drip tape is needed. Our plastic layer also comes in a single- or multi-row configuration and can lay drip tape at the same time.
Transplanter: Our transplanters are used without custom-punch wheels. We build the punch wheels based on the customer’s plant spacing. The plants will sit in trays and as the machine is pulled over the row, the punch wheel will make a hole in the plastic, water will also go into the hole, and a rider will place the transplant into the hole and pack it in a nice growing environment. Using the hand transplant method gives the plant the best opportunity to thrive, as it is less damaging to the roots as a mechanical transplanter can be.
Other equipment we’ve sold is powerbedders, sprayers, and fertilizer distributors—again, all depending on the grower’s field and needs.
Kennco’s powerbedder attaches to a tractor hitch and is powered by the tractor’s PTO shaft. This heavy-duty piece of equipment allows for quicker soil preparation.
Their sprayers allow growers to easily apply fertilizers to their crops. Kennco builds each spray to fill the needs of the individual customer. The frame is galvanized, which protects it from chemical corrosion and extends the sprayer’s lifespan.
Fertilizer distributors and applicators are available from Kennco in stainless steel or painted carbon steel. The company offers a wide variety of sizes and options. Fertilizer applications can be adjusted in the field.
Brandy: For the end of the season the grower needs to lift and remove all the plastic mulch they have laid in the field. For this, we’ve been selling a lot of our PS613 plastic mulch retrievers. This machine will pull up a single row of plastic mulch and roll it around our cones. When growers get to the end of a row they separate the cones and the balled-up plastic will drop where they put it. This saves a ton of labor and makes the plastic easy to move to recycling (or disposal) facilities.
For those that can roll up the plastic, we also have a plastic lifter, which will go through the field and lift up the plastic so it is easier to manually remove. Since our plastic layer tucks the plastic mulch so well to the bed, our lifters and retrievers are designed to easily do the reverse and untuck and lift or remove the plastic.
Other equipment available from Kennco:
Blade bedding disks
Liquid fertilizer injection wheels
Hoses, fittings, and other components available for plumbing fumigation systems
Kennco stocks over 10,000 replacement parts. Need a replacement part for your equipment? Kennco can quickly ship the part to you. Many of the parts can be shipped the same day as ordered.
Replacement parts for:
Check out more information on their customized equipment on their website www.kenncomfg.com.
CBJ: Do you have any statistics on the yield improvement of hemp crops when a hemp farmer uses your equipment?
Brandy: Not yet. Hemp growers are already adjusting based on what they see in the field, to determine whether they should increase or decrease their plant spacing for more yield next season. This all comes with the row centers, plant spacing, and bed sizes. So far we’ve heard that some are going to try and get more plants in the fields next year. So they would decrease their row centers or plant spacing to increase the number of plants they can fit per acre. But that is on the grower.
[Because] we’ve been building this type of equipment for 46 years, we know that it will save the grower time, labor, and fuel; they will form great beds; the plastic will be tight; and the tucks will last. All of those contribute to a better growing environment for their plants, which improves the yield while lowering costs.
CBJ: How does someone order a piece of your equipment? Do you take direct orders? Are there stores that carry your merchandise?
Brandy: Most of our sales are direct to customer. Due to the customizations of most of our equipment, we need to speak directly with the customers to find out how to design and build just what they need. We do have a few dealers who stock some of our more standardized pieces of equipment and can consult with the grower to design what they need.
CBJ: If I’m in Oregon and order a piece of equipment, how is it delivered?
Brandy: After we build the equipment you’ve ordered, we collect payment and then either the customer will schedule their own truck to pick up the equipment or we will coordinate the freight to have it delivered to the customer’s location. Typically it is via flatbed truck. Smaller pieces of equipment or parts are shipped via box truck or UPS/FEDEX where applicable.
CBJ: What does the future hold for Kennco? Is there expansion plans? What do those plans involve?
Brandy: Kennco plans to continue building the best farm equipment for raised-bed farming available. We are always listening to our customers to see what their frustrations and needs are to come up with new solutions and equipment to address those problems. Typically they involve labor shortages, which all of our equipment is designed with reducing labor in mind. We also have a sales department that focuses on the needs of nonagricultural customers. We have in-house machining capabilities, fabrication, assembly, painting, forming—so we also manufacture custom metal pieces for anyone who needs them.