It’s not a normal occurrence, in the 21st century, to drive past a cornfield and see a farmer combining with a small, orange New Idea Uni-Harvester. But ever since I can remember, my father has been a proud owner of New Idea Uni-Systems.
Growing up on a dairy farm that my father started on his own, it made sense that we would only be able to afford these smaller combines that took twice as much time as the newer models. As we grew older, my siblings and I scratched our heads as our father continued to buy up this old, run-down equipment. Why continue to farm more than 200 acres with a piece of equipment from the 1970s that cost next to scrap iron price and takes weeks to finish harvesting?
Sold on the Uni-System
My father, Richard Navis, began working as a mechanic for Gibbsville Implement in southeast Wisconsin in 1989 after completing technical college. While working there, he repaired equipment for half a dozen farmers who used Uni-Systems. He said he always thought the Uni’s were neat and his clients always had good things to say about them. When he began buying equipment after starting a dairy farm in the early 1990s, he made a point of looking for a Uni-System.
In 1999, my father bought his first Uni, a 708 with a chopper that cost him $2,500. Not long after, he bought two more Uni-Systems from Gibbsville Implement, the same place he had first worked on them. They had a 704 with a gas engine and a 709 that they were having trouble selling. Both Uni’s needed a lot of work, but my father got them up and running.
Word got around that my father liked Unis and he made connections with people from Minnesota, Illinois and Michigan. With Uni-Systems going out of style in the late 1990s, he bought all of his Unis for next-to scrap iron prices.
Building a Uni collection
After selling the dairy farm six years ago and getting into beef farming and cash crops, my father decided that he wanted to collect all the Uni-Systems in the series. He now owns 16 New Idea Uni-Systems, ranging from an early 1950s Minneapolis-Moline L to a 1981 802 with the 717 combine and 815 grain head. He’s missing a few that he continues to search for, including a 706 with a Ford engine, the 701 with the Continental engine and the 800 with the Perkins engine.
He combines corn, wheat and soybeans, and chops corn and hay for livestock. He even has a Uni-System with a snowblower attachment for the tough Wisconsin winters. One of his Uni-Systems has a John Deere corn planter that he planted 100 acres with last year. He’s currently refurbishing another one with an Allis-Chalmers corn planter, “just because.” In total, my father currently uses his New Idea Uni-Systems to work more than 250 acres of land.
My father says his favorite Uni-Systems are the old belt-driven models because they’re old and fun to drive. These include the early 700 series (701-707). The newer Uni-Systems are reserved for those extra muddy days when the belt-driven systems just don’t cut it.
My father’s favorite thing to do with his Unis is pick corn. He says that it reminds him of his grandfather when he was younger, and he’d have to ride in the wagon and husk the corn by hand. It’s also pretty special for him that all three of his kids, including me, had a chance to work in the field with the Uni-Systems, mostly chopping hay for the dairy cows.
Increasingly hard to find
New Idea Farm Equipment Co. traces its roots to 1899, when the company began building manure spreaders in Maria Stein, Ohio. In 1912, the company moved to Coldwater, Ohio, where manufacturing of New Idea Uni-Systems continued until a 1993 buyout by AGCO. The New Idea brand was dropped in about 2007.
Ironically, my father also farms with Oliver tractors and White Farm Equipment products, both of which were also bought out by AGCO. During the 1970s and ’80s, New Idea’s biggest competitors were Fox and John Deere. New Idea Uni-System products fared well against the competition and were popular among many farmers. However, New Idea didn’t keep up with the times and John Deere passed them by.
My father believes the last Uni was built around 1997 with leftover parts. He says that Uni-Systems are getting more difficult to find today. When one comes up for sale on social media, he says you need to act on it quickly or you may not find another for a year.
Lesson learned the hard way
With older equipment, you can expect more breakdowns and mishaps that require extra work to get the equipment back in running condition. When my family first sold the dairy farm, my father started picking corn to sell to the local co-op. He was driving his 705 GMC diesel V-6 engine when suddenly, it burst into flames.
Thankfully, he had a fire extinguisher on board, which stopped the fire for about four seconds before the flames engulfed the entire Uni. He had to call the local fire department to extinguish it before it could take the whole corn field!
Later, he said he didn’t realize that he didn’t have all the shields in place and there were dried leaves in the muffler from picking corn. That along with the oil spilled around the muffler caused the fire. He says now he knows better!
Uni-System makes a convincing argument
When asked if he thinks he might have the largest fleet of New Idea Uni-Systems in the country, my father laughs sheepishly. He says that people he meets at the local co-op and dealerships laugh when they find out he works more than 200 acres with Uni-Systems. It takes him all day to fill a semi-truck and he needs to use a grain cart because the Unis are too short to reach the semi.
He can only work about 10 acres a day, 15 on a really good day, whereas even an early 1990s John Deere combine can do more than 30 acres a day. But his most expensive Uni cost him $2,500 and that 1990s John Deere is still worth at least $30,000. Even though plenty of farmers joke with him about using New Idea Unis, my father has found a social media group of thousands who share his joy of using and learning about them.
As someone who no longer works in agriculture, it’s always a joy to come home to the farm and hear the latest news from my father on the workings of the farm. Listening to him excitedly talk about his New Idea Uni-Systems and the sheer joy and pride he has in them is a really neat thing to see in a world full of people looking for the newest technology to get the job done quicker.
It was especially amazing to see all his Uni-Systems lined up for a fun photo shoot, with cars slowing as drivers tried to get a glimpse of the rare farm equipment. If you find yourself driving through the farm fields of southeast Wisconsin, be sure to check the fields for my father and his Uni-Systems. I’m sure he’ll still be toiling along. FC
The author gratefully acknowledges Eldon Rahn, a fellow antique tractor enthusiast, who inspired us to write this article.
For more information: Richard Navis is on Facebook. Contact him at N9117 Little Elkhart Lake Road, Elkhart Lake, WI 53020; (920) 980-0750: email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Danielle (Navis) Lorenz will graduate from medical school as an emergency medicine physician this year. Her husband, Joseph Lorenz, is the amateur photographer whose work is featured in this article.