After a disappointing rebuff from the Republic of Cuba last fall on its proposal to assemble tractors in the Mariel Special Development Zone, Cleber LLC has refocused by doing business in five new countries while increasing marketing efforts in the U.S.
Cleber, based in Paint Rock, Alabama, sells an open-source, modernized Allis G tractor called the Oggún for $12, 500, or just double what suburbanites are spending on zero-turn riding lawnmowers. The company has now shipped tractors to 17 states and recently acquired distributors in Peru, Ethiopia and Australia, according to company marketing specialist Locky Catron. Cleber also has shipped tractors to universities across 10 states, including the University of Missouri, Cornell and Clemson.
“All these universities are using the tractors in their small farm programs, training the next generation of farmers. We believe with the local food movement there can be a resurrection of the small farm as farmers realize they can make money where they couldn’t before, ” Catron says.
Cleber, which takes its name from co-founders Saul Berenthal and Horace Clemmons, has never been about making fast profits. The two met as IBM engineers 40 years ago and made their fortunes later by founding a company that sold cash register software. They’ve since partnered on other profitable startups. Cuba was never far from the mind of Berenthal, who left there in 1960 as a teenager.
Much of their success came from basing products on open sourcing, which makes a product easy to acquire and encourages others to build on it. The Oggún is made from off-the-shelf components available from many global manufacturers.
The local food movement in the United States has caused Cleber to realize that smaller farms might represent a market for a tractor originally aimed at less developed countries. This spring the company took its tractor on a 4, 425-mile tour through seven states, talking to hundreds of farmers. The big takeaway, according to the company’s blog: Small farmers have to do it on their own, as the USDA gives its technical and financial support to bigger operations.
As for the setback in Cuba, little comment was made at the time by either country, but Cuban officials reportedly wanted more technologically advanced products assembled in the ZEDM, according to CubaTrade.org. Cleber was told it could still seek export business selling assembled tractors to Cuba. While food exports to Cuba from the United States can’t be financed, agricultural equipment can be, under current rules.
The company is taking part in educational programs to connect farmers in Cuba with counterparts in the United States. Cleber also is working on the Oggún II, a larger model for farmers who do precision cultivation on 5 rows. It would still be suitable for family farms under 120 acres.
Text by Dave Helms