By Trevor Bacque 

A visit to any Prairie farm often doubles as free admission to a one-of-a-kind museum of invention. Farmers are plagued by unique issues wherever they may find themselves scratching the dirt. For centuries, they have invented doodads, whatchamacallits and thingamajigs to make their lives easier.

Mark Devloo is no different. The Somerset, Man., farmer has been working on the land his entire life, 53 years. A novel invention turned seeding, his most dreaded time of year, into just another routine set of dates in the calendar.

The farm has been in the family since 1936 when Devloo’s grandfather Maurice immigrated from Belgium. He immediately began farming grain and the tradition continued through Devloo’s father Gerry, who added 120 pigs into the farm’s system in 1963. By 1987, Devloo was managing farmland and was also into hogs. At the height of the farm, Devloo along with three full-time staff managed 2,000 acres and 625 sows in 2008. It was a considerable amount of work and Devloo decided to make that year one of change. He sold off the sows, dedicated his time exclusively to grain farming and began to add acres. 

“At that point it was a decision that had to be made,” he says. “I was already in the hog business since I was a kid. At that age [42] I had to decide whether I wanted to build again and keep going or just sell off and get into concentrating on the farming end of it.”

As acres increased, he wondered what he might do with his time aside from tending to the grains and oilseeds. The answer came soon enough in the form of a small disc-like piece of metal. It would prove to be his next source of entrepreneurial zeal. Now, with the farm sitting at just over 2,700 acres, Devloo continues farming usual rotations of soybeans, canola and spring wheat.

Since 2009, Devloo has straight cut canola. A true early adopter of the practice, he hasn’t left canola in a swath even before the introduction of shatter-resistant varieties. When they became available though, he did switch over, but admitted he couldn’t see a distinct advantage until Mother Nature hit.

“I never really noticed, but then we had a pretty good wind storm and small hail and it proved that it held up a lot better,” he says. “Our product held up in a late hail storm and it held up a lot better than the [non-shattering varieties]. Shatter-resistant pods make all the difference with the losses with the weather.”

True for any farmer, the work has its ups and downs. The most notable ongoing thorn in his side has been the soil. His entire life, the black clay-loam mixture has proven itself to be a formidable foe for himself and generations gone by. The soil type is great due to its fertility and moisture retention. However, the latter has also presented itself as an unending problem to Devloo. Mud routinely sticks to the packer wheels of his John Deere air seeder just as well as Krazy Glue would to any surface. As a result, Devloo has experienced years of inconsistent seeding depth and fertilizer placement. It also forces him to wait to get into the field at seeding time because a slight amount of moisture often spells sure-fire disaster. 

“What it forced the person to do was wait longer to put your crop in. You couldn’t go as early, you had to wait ‘til it was a little dryer,” he says. “Even when the top surface dried out and you opened up the soil, your cool sticky soil was still there. Until the ground really warmed up, it was still there.”

Ultimately, his bottom line took a hit numerous times, making it difficult to expand the farm on his timeline and achieve yields and returns he thought his farm could create. The mud was winning and the family was left with few choices.  

They tried all kinds of scrapers. They tried stationary scrapers. They tried basket scrapers. They tried other kinds of scrapers they can’t even remember the names of. 

There had to be a better way. 

In the spring of 2011, the phrase “necessity is the mother of invention” proved itself true yet again. 

Devloo and company were preparing to suffer through another slow seeding when father Gerry decided enough was enough. He created his own scraper—a small shallow disc scraper that half resembled a minor soccer boundary marker. After affixing all 72 of them to the packer wheels on primitive brackets, Gerry hopped in the cab and set off in the muck.

“He did the whole works because he had a feeling it was going to work,” says Devloo. “He went 100 yards down the field …  When he came back to see how it was going, I had a big smile on my face. He said, ‘what went wrong this time?’ I said, ‘we could sell this.’ I knew there’d be a lot of farmers that would love to have this.”

Two days later they began seeding and, to everyone’s pleasant surprise, it was just fine. The scrapers worked and the seed and fertilizer were—by comparison to yesteryear—placed with impeccable precision. 

With its current design, the scraper itself is attached on an updated sturdy bracket that rests 1/8” above the tire. As the tires revolve, mud collects. The scrapers freely rotate only when mud touches the scraper. The result is uniform seed and fertilizer placement as well as better fuel economy, according to Devloo. 

“Consistent seed depth is important because you need good emergence,” he says in an online tutorial video he shot for customers. “You only get one chance every year to have a good crop and [it’s] very important to have your seed and your fertilizer placements proper.”

Not long after the family’s new-found creation began to completely change their seeding practices, Devloo, always a man quick to help others, knew that he wanted to share the good news with fellow farmers dogged with the same issue.

In his everyman spirit, he posted an advertisement on Kijiji that same summer, selling his newly minted Roto Mud Scrapers to farmers. 

He quickly received a few nibbles from others beleaguered with similar soil conditions. Perhaps it was a hobby project and a bit too ‘out there’ for others? He decided to hit the trade show trail and give it a shot. After all, farmers pride themselves on face-to-face connections and he could effortlessly evangelize about the scrapers’ utility. 

First, he traveled to the Farm Progress Show in Regina in 2012. He entered the scrapers into FPS’ Innovation Award program. That year, much to his surprise, he took home top spot with the invention. 

“It felt great to be able to help other farmers knowing that you’re doing some good and all the compliments coming back,” he says of that first win. “Meeting farmers at trade shows, it’s a good feeling knowing you’re helping out. It’s a win-win.”

The next stop for Devloo was onto his home province’s Manitoba Ag Days in Brandon, Man., in 2013. He entered the show’s innovation awards and the event’s judges must have thought the idea had merit because Devloo took top spot, as well. 

He then traveled to Red Deer, Alta., for Agri-Trade 2013, where he experienced déjà vu, winning gold yet again. With a triple crown of Ws under his belt, Devloo was satisfied, not for himself, but that a golden idea would surely translate to farmers able to solve their dirt dilemma.

He left Agri-Trade mid-show to fly to Hannover, Germany, for Agritechnica, quite possibly the world’s largest farm equipment trade show. Devloo remembers the time well.

“I was in a 10-by-10 booth in a building 1,000 feet wide, 600 feet long,” he says with a laugh. “It was a pretty good experience getting to see other equipment and how they practice their farming in other countries.”

It wasn’t just a holiday either. Devloo made numerous international connections and today you can spot his Roto Mud Scrapers in the farm fields of Australia, Kazakhstan, New Zealand, Russia, Sweden, the U.K. and the U.S.

Any time Devloo is on the circuit, he’s always glad to meet people who have used and experienced his family’s invention that was created out of a miserable situation.

“Any time I meet a customer it’s a handshake, not a pissed off customer,” he says.

The scrapers themselves are a clever answer to an age-old problem. They convey practicality not beauty. Each is made from 10-guage sheet steel, bent and shaped to the specs Devloo requires. Every single unit is manufactured in his on-farm shop while a local Hutterite colony assists with laser cutting parts. The powder-coated paint job comes from an outfit in nearby Winkler, Man., and final products are flat-packed and shipped right from the farm, making the product as local as local can be.

To date, Devloo has sold more than 55,000 scrapers and has inventory for orders to last until 2021. 

The genial farmer had the intuition to satisfy colour questions, too. The Salford, Morris and Case IH crowd will be happy with the red scrapers, yellow for Seedmaster, John Deere and Bourgault types, blue for New Holland operators, orange for Euro-centric Amazone and a black versatile enough for just about any make and model. 

Of course, the scraper colour he is most proud of is pink. 

His mother Barbara was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000 and survived. Devloo thought that since his powder coaters can create any pantone desirable, a pink would complete the suite of colour options.

“It’s pretty cool to see the fellows in the farming community putting pink on their machines and not knowing what people think about it because they’re backing it up and supporting,” he says. “That’s pretty cool because everyone has been touched by cancer one way or another.”

Not only that, Devloo donates $5 from every individual scraper sale back to the Canadian Cancer Society in Manitoba. He is extremely proud of donating more than $29,000 since 2014.

“It makes me feel good to know that hopefully that money is going to a good cause,” he says. 

He works hard to guarantee the scrapers are well-received by customers and continues to work at the farm with his brother Jamie, co-owners of the farm since 2013.

When he first began, the five to six days per week of duties immediately turned into seven. Often, after working a long day, he’d start making calls at midnight as it proved to be a good time to catch European customers. All his Canadian calls are made in sequential order based on time zones, he notes with a smile on his face. 

His four children have all pitched in and helped at various times, but it’s currently daughters Natia and Jovita assisting their father at various times of the year, looking after everything from bookkeeping and invoicing to creating instruction packages and taking care of the business online.

“When I started this business it was my main goal to employ everybody in the family,” he says. “If it was something one of the kids wanted to take over, that was my goal: to keep the family busy.”

Devloo’s current focus is to branch out and place more time marketing the scrapers overseas. 

“Our goals are to help the farmers out there and make sure that we’re there for them if they need help,” he says. “We don’t walk away from anything.”