San Francisco Examiner-Image
January 4, 1987
THE SEED OF AN IDEA - BILL HUME HAD ONE OF THOSE JOLTS OF INSPIRATION THAT MAKES FARMERS ASK, "WHY DIDN'T I THINK OF THAT?"
On a warm Memorial Day in 1983, in Dos Palos, California, farmer Bill Hume was out in one of his fields checking his melon crop. Weeks earlier the retired schoolteacher, full-time farmer and one-time back-up quarter back to the Forty-Niners' Y.A. Title had plowed his fields in neat furrows. Then, using a machine that creates holes in the soil, he planted millions of seeds at a precise depth in the heavy, black clay. After that, he had used a special land-shaping machine that placed a "cap" of soil above each seed to protect it from wind and rain.
Now Hume was trying to figure out if the seed sprouts were about to enter the cap. This was necessary to know because at precisely the right moment, Hume would have to bring in machinery and "decap" or knock off the mounds of soil. The operation was essential to a successful crop. Decap too early and the melon sprouts would dry up and die; to late and you literally would decapitate the sprouts.
To check his seeds, Hume poked his index finger into the soil, digging out a seed and contemplating its status. He had been checking seeds day after day, hundreds of times each day, in different fields and in different parts of the same field. After weeks of poking and digging in the abrasive, chemical-laden soil, the tip of Hume's index finger looked like it had been dragged across a cheese grater. Among row crop farmers this common affliction is known as "scratchin" finger."
Hume's son, who was home from college to help with the planting, looked at his father's finger and laughed. "That thing looks worn out," he told his dad. "Don't you think there's a better way to find those seeds?"
And so an idea was born. Back in his ranch shop, Hume Sr. tinkered with various metal seed-finder designs. Eventually he created a ten-inch-long thingamajig that looked like a fancy tongue depressor. One end was blunt, the other pointed, and each end was bent in the opposite direction. The seed finder exactly fit the planting slot created by the two most commonly used planting machines. A hole at the blunt end provided a way to hang the invention from a line or hook.
No more dulled pocketknife blades. No more scratching about with sticks and dried cotton stalks. Best of all, the device seemed a perfect solution to "scratchin' finger." A farmer's finger would never again have to root about in the soil, thought Hume. Seed-testing-a key and time-honored step in growing row crops, cotton and grains-now had its own special low-tech tool.
"We call it the HSF," says Hume. "That means Hume Seed Finder." Hume envisioned thousands of farmers around the world, along with thousands of home gardeners, each carrying one of his seed finders in his pocket. Imprinted with the farmer's name on one side, or the name of a particular seed company, marketing co-operative or cotton gin, the seed finders could be given out like business cards. What a market, thought Hume.
"Then I got to thinking it was too bulky, too heavy," he explains with a sly grin. "I started worrying. What if a guy loses it in a field and spikes a tractor tire or a truck tire? What if it gets picked up in a cotton picker and somehow starts a cotton gin fire?"
To eliminate that problem and mass-produce his seed finder, Hume decided to make it out of a tough, inexpensive, brightly colored plastic. Adding markings for a six-inch ruler to one side and a custom logo to the other, he overcame the large start-up costs with advance sales. Ten days after the first production run, he had sold 6,000 little HSF's, mainly to cotton gins and seed companies.
Since then, Hume has sold more than 60,000 seed finders and he reports that he has now passed the break-even point. California seed companies, owners of cotton gins, sunflower, lettuce, corn and grain growers have been the biggest clients. Hume now also sells his device in sixteen different states and dozen countries, including the Netherlands, Greece and Australia.
"Everyone seems especially drawn to the ones with company logos printed on one side, opposite the six-inch scale, "says Hume in between greetings and handshakes during a 6 a.m. breakfast with other local farmers at the Palm Café in Dos Palos. "The most popular color combinations are green with gold logos and yellow with green logos. But we're also selling lots of red, blue and black seed finders."
"It's still a part-time business," explains Hume. "If the farm economy were really perking along, I think I could sell one of the seed finders to every row crop farmer in the United States. "Meanwhile, the inventor is slowly building his clientele. Future untapped markets include the nursery business and hardware stores.
And so, with his multi-colored tool, Bill Hume joins the ranks of other California farmers-inventors of rice dryers, tree shakers, alfalfa crushers-who saw a need and figured out how to fill it. The seed finder, however, has additional uses, not all of them in farming. Hume reports that on a recent Alaska vacation he caught three sockeye salmon on a yellow seed finder modified to function as lure. HSF's also serve as Christmas tree ornaments, letter openers and fish hook removers-if you cut a small notch in the blunt end-says Hume, although he says he can't really recommend them for that purpose. "Certainly the most enjoyable use comes at the end of a long day working in the fields. I just wipe off a seed finder and use it to stir the ice in my cocktail."