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Father, Son in Maine Design Potato Equipment

They may no longer be growing potatoes, but the Ellises certainly are involved in the potato industry – on a world-wide basis.

Malcolm and Jaye Ellis, an Aroostook County, Maine, father and son pair, left raising potatoes in 1994 to concentrate on inventing, designing and manufacturing equipment to aid farmers with better production and harvesting methods.

Mac, the father, of Ashland, eats, sleeps and dreams of mechanical devices to help potato growers with their farming problems. Often in the evening, his wife, Edna, will notice a certain expression come over his face. When she sees that expression, she asks “OK, what are you thinking of now?”

Mac and Jaye raised potatoes in Ashland, Maine, until 1994. As they farmed, they also were designing and building equipment for themselves and other growers that would be added to harvesters and other farming equipment.

“We were making money on the manufacturing side,” Jaye said. “But were losing it on the potato-growing side.”

The farm operation had grown as large as possible, and the manufacturing side was really taking off.

It was in 1977 when Mac designed and built a fan cleaner for his own Lockwood Markair harvester. Prior to his designs, fans had to be cleaned by hand, frequently with a shovel. He sold his design to Lockwood where it became standard equipment on all new Lockwood Markair harvesters, Mac said.

In 1979 he designed a second fan clearer to solve some belt problems on his harvester. The design rotates the outer housing around the fan to loosen accumulated mud. Thomas Equipment of Centreville, New Brunswick, Canada, has made the cleaner standard equipment on all new airvac harvesters.

“We were innocent of the value of the invention and what it did for the industry,” Mac said. “It did a lot for the industry, but not too much for me.”

Mac is president of Ellis Farms, the manufacturer of mechanical components. Jaye, now of Presque Isle, Maine, is president of Commercial & Industrial Electronics, the design firm for control panels, such as those used on harvesters. The two firms hold six patents on equipment for various farm machines.

The SS Table has been one of the most popular. Placed where the dirt/clod table would usually be just before the airhead, it is designed to remove soil and stones from potatoes as they are dug by the Thomas 675 air-vac harvester. The table has become popular with farmers and is now installed on many conventional and air vacuum harvesters across North America.

“The farmers are barely making enough to survive, and for the acres they have, they want to dig them cheaper,” Jaye said. “They want to produce more for less. So in trying to be efficient, they come to us and ask how to get their harvesters to dig more acres per day. That’s what we are working on. People are demanding it.

“We have tons of ideas. But you have to keep your business going to pay for them. It takes a lot of money to develop a new idea. Then, once you have a new idea, you have to go out and convince the public that they need it. It needs to be marketed.”

One of the most popular designs Mac has perfected is the Auto Level with boom compensator on Lockwood air harvesters that are being sold in Maine and western New Brunswick. Designs for an improved Ellis Table are still on the drawing board, and Jay and Mac feel it has a lot of potential.

Mac came into farming as a youngster. When his father, Phineas, gave up farming to become a town manager and then a hospital administrator, Mac joined the farm operation with his uncles and grandfather. He was active in the FFA as state president and then national vice president. He took a two-year college course in agriculture, which was interrupted by the Army draft. After returning from the Army, he finished the course and was offered the position of manager of a grain company. Later, he operated the Ellis Starch Co. in Ashland.

It was a couple of years later that Mac had the opportunity to get back into farming.

The father and son team owned as many as 800 acres at one time with 160 acres in potatoes for processing and tablestock.

“Jaye had an interest in raising different varieties of seed,” Mac said.

Jaye became manager of Commercial & Industrial Electronics, an electronics firm started by Lloyd Duncan of Presque Isle in 1964. Duncan had specialized in harvester controls during the 1980s, and Jaye took over the company as president and has continued to produce harvester controls for Allen Potato Handling Equipment Co., of Prince Edward Island; Thomas Equipment, of New Brunswick; and Lockwood Manufacturing under the banner of Shortline Controls.

Originally posted Saturday, Apr. 7, 2007

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