Misery yields opportunity: Farm family builds, sells deluxe trailers
Dan Eckert's inspiration first seeped into his consciousness while he was lying uncomfortably inside his tent on a soggy cow pasture. His clothes were wet, his spirit was damp, and his back was a lot less forgiving than it used to be. "Hey," he l...
Dan Eckert's inspiration first seeped into his consciousness while he was lying uncomfortably inside his tent on a soggy cow pasture.
His clothes were wet, his spirit was damp, and his back was a lot less forgiving than it used to be.
"Hey," he later recalled thinking, "sleeping on the ground isn't all that it's bragged up to be."
Eckert looked around and saw scores of polished Harley Davidson motorcycles parked outside tents -- this pasture happened to be a campground for the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
It dawned on Eckert that many of those soggy tents were occupied by people much like himself, middle-aged men and women who were prepared to spend a lot of money to pursue their hobby in comfort.
That insight ultimately led to his idea: He would start a company to build custom trailers that would serve as towable living spaces, with room to haul motorcycles or other expensive toys.
A few weeks after Eckert and his wife Jessica returned to their farm near Ayr, 45 miles northwest of Fargo, they made a pilgrimage to Elkhart, Ind., capital of the recreational vehicle industry.
But the captains of the RV industry couldn't see profits to be made from Eckert's vision. Politely, they showed him the door.
"They all laughed me right out of there," he said. "They said bikers don't have any money."
Ah, but plenty of them do. And in the seven years since, the Eckert family business, Swan Creek Marketing, has sold a lot of custom trailers, perhaps 75 or 100, said the Eckerts' daughter Tanya, who manages the firm's business office.
The business has outgrown the old shop, which wasn't big enough to accommodate some of the larger trailers.
Now the Eckerts turn out trailers in a shop spacious enough to hold local Fourth of July celebrations.
Three generations of Eckerts work in the trailer business -- Dan's dad Don is a retired farmer who helps out full time -- and several nearby farmers, some retired, pitch in. Hearing aids, for ears subjected to years of exposure to loud farm machinery and power tools, are common around the lunch table.
"They're the best employees you could have," Dan Eckert said of his farmers-turned custom builders. They're loyal, have decades of experience fixing things, and they don't complain.
Prices vary widely, depending on how lavish a customer's wishes. One recently delivered trailer sold for $12,000, while another sold for $55,000. "He had it extremely decked out," Tanya said. Others are even more extremely decked out, with prices occasionally reaching six figures.
"Our niche is high end," Dan Eckert said. "Our customers want 'wow.' They want to make a statement when they drop these ramps down."
Many customers live in southern California or the Silicon Valley area, where nouveau riche dot-commers like to haul their bikes in style.
"As this business has grown, people are wanting more," Dan Eckert said. "Now people are looking for bathrooms."
Compact, camper-size kitchens and bathrooms are standard. Beds and tables fold when not in use to make room to stow motorcycles, snowmobiles, or hunting gear. Many customers want home entertainment systems, flatscreen televisions, even surround sound.
One model, under construction, has a mirror on the ceiling, the first time that feature has been requested.
"Everything is an option," Tanya Eckert said. "We say 'What do you want?' and we'll set it up for you."
After consulting with the customer, Dan Eckert draws up plans on a computer, then sends the digital floor plans to customer for approval. Every cubic inch is important.
"We deal in square inches in our business, not square feet," he said.
While a trailer is being made, the Eckerts send digital photos via e-mail to consult with the customer about the work in progress. Thanks to technology, their grain and soybean farm in rural Cass County is less remote.
Lately, the demand for custom trailers has taken the Eckerts in new directions. They recently built a portable auction office, and have requests to build trailers for use by owners of purebred canines to take on the dog show circuit.
The demands of operating a farm and a growing business on the side can be taxing, especially during spring planting and harvest seasons. There's potential to expand the business further, but that would mean more management headaches.
Meanwhile, in a variation of the old adage that the shoemaker's children go barefoot, Dan and Jessica Eckert have yet to build a custom trailer for themselves. They'll get around to that some day. Until then, they can dream about options.
"It's going to have everything in it," Dan said.
The days of soggy tents and sore backs are long behind.
Readers can reach Forum reporter
Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522