Photos by Kris Kathmann
When a General Mills or Pillsbury president stumbles onto what seems like a fantastic idea for a new product, they have the wherewithal to bring in an army of Ph.D.s, M.B.A marketing gurus and ivy league patent attorneys in order to carry that idea to market. In a large corporation, the idea-to-market process may take years and tens of millions to play out. With General Mills, in ready-to-eat cereals, for example, long-term successes are rare, even after pumping over $30 million in advertising alone into each new product introduction.
Now fast forward to Kasota, Minn., where a born entrepreneur, the president of Aqua-Ozone/Tri-County Water/Ooodles Cafe/Ooodles Catering/Grandpa’s Popcorn Wagon, sits in a faded blue tin shack of a building and shrugs off his lack of wherewithal to get what seems like a perfectly good product, Aqua-Ozone, to the point where the average farmer even acknowledges that it works. He doesn’t have any letters behind his name to prove his point, like Ph.D. or M.B.A., and the only proof of whether his product works better than others in the industry comes from the good words of hundreds of farmers in the Upper Midwest. Truthfully, much of what Earl Rients, 61, has for backing of his product’s success is a dead ringer for Santa Claus physique, gleaming eyes and an honest smile.
A testimonial from one of his customers goes like this: A South Dakota farmer, who has an artesian well 2,200 feet deep, wants a water system for his house and animals. “Well, I had a prototype system with me to show him,” Earl says about his visit to South Dakota, “and we made water right there on the kitchen counter to show him how the system works. It tasted good, looked good, and we made coffee with it. If I think I can help a customer we tell them that, and if we can’t, we don’t go any further with it. ”
Two months later with the new Aqua-Ozone water treatment system and the farmer can’t believe the results. “Earl, I had to fix all my fences,” says the happy farmer. “The cattle are getting out. I didn’t know my animals could run and jump and play. I’ve never seen my cows and calves run like this.” But then comes the kicker and what keeps Earl in business. The farmer says, “The last milk check I got I was up about $160 per day in milk production. That means quite a bit to me. Plus my breeding has changed in this short spell.”
It’s not because of Aqua-Ozone, you say? The farmer calls Earl a couple months later and shouts: “Earl, come out, my cows are down in production!” So Earl goes, and finds the system isn’t working. A little later with a fixed system and the cows are back up to full production.
Ozone, or O3, is a scientifically proven, powerful disinfectant that kills foul-tasting viruses and bacteria, and it also can oxidize iron, rust, and black manganese for removal with a filter. Earl’s invention ozonizes water and filters like all the rest, but how well it does it is anybody’s guess.
Read the product labels on the sides of water bottles: Many bottled water companies ozonize before bottling water for retail sale. Most big-city municipalities, such as Los Angeles, also ozonize their city water, as do a number of smaller communities, like Spirit Lake, Iowa, which pulls its water right out of a lake. In fact, the Spirit Lake water department head once saw the Aqua-Ozone system and said it looked identical to the City’s, except for its smaller size. Some European cities have been ozonizing for up to 100 years. Not long ago a German man ate at Earl’s St. Peter restaurant, Ooodles Cafe, and told him: “People in our town in Germany won’t drink the water unless it’s treated. You’re on the right track, Earl. Keep going!”
It’s the wave of the future, but it could take up to twenty years before enough people become concerned about their tap water quality and its affect on human bodily function for the idea to really take off.
Earl says other companies ozonize by injecting air through an ozone injector into a pipe filled with pressurized water. This “corona discharge” process seems inefficient as a means of mixing air and water, he says, and rust from the water tends to clog up the injector, leading to more than a few service calls.
His Aqua-Ozone invention uses “ultraviolet” to generate ozone. Water is pumped from a farm or home well into a non-pressurized plastic holding tank which acts as a cistern. Ozone created from the ultraviolet is bubbled through the holding tank before the water is pumped out, pressurized and sent off to house or farm. Unlike a General Mills or Pillsbury who can afford patent attorneys for such new processes, Rients shrugs and says a patent “would take time and money. Besides, I just want to get this out to the farmers.”
A home unit sells for $2,400 to $2,800, while farm models range from $4,000 to $6,000. He has sold over forty units since creating the system in his Kasota garage in 1995. Built-in safety features include valves that shut down the pump in case the water level falls too low or bubbles up too high.
This may sound like a workable process at a reasonable price, but again, no scientific research on his particular invention, no documentation other than personal testimonials, and not even a water test to quantify results – just that trustworthy Santa Claus smile. To test water for a potential customer, basically, Rients eyes it (if the water is rusty, it’s bad for cattle), smells it (a rotten egg smell isn’t good, either) and observes how the animals drink it to determine whether a farmer’s livestock will benefit from the treatment. “You and I can go to the refrigerator and get a glass of pop to avoid drinking that kind of water,” says Earl, “but an animal has no choice. Some people have told me a pig and a cow are more finicky about their water than you and I, but I can’t prove it.”
Earl relates another testimonial: “A farmer in Pomeroy, Iowa, was feeding beef cattle,” says Earl, adding, “and he had a problem with foot rot. Then he said he had rusty water, and wanted it fixed, even if only for the house. So we put a system in. He called me months later and said, ‘My cattle’s foot rot’s gone.’ I said, You’re kidding me, aren’t you? ‘No,’ he said, ‘it’s totally gone. I don’t have a problem with it anymore. And another thing, Earl: We’re in the middle of June and all the winter coat is coming off my cattle. It never used to come off until August.’ What’s that got to do with it? I asked. ‘Earl, they’re drinking twice as much water. I know they are. I stand here and watch them. They even play in the water. I know this is it.'”
About six months later the farmer called Earl again. “Earl, my cows, calves and feeders aren’t looking good, and I have foot rot again.” Earl drove down, and sure enough, the ozone system had blown a fuse, which meant it hadn’t been working. After the system was up and running the foot rot once again left.
His Right-Hand Waterman
Kurt Uhlenhake, 40, from Ossian, Iowa, has been alongside Earl Rients since the first Wisconsin-built model was sold in 1986. His efforts have accounted for about 3/4ths of Rients’ gross sales, and he also tinkers at servicing the Aqua-Ozone units. Kurt is somewhat of a self-educated expert on livestock through intensive study of literature, listening and just plain watching, which helps when they go as a team to farms when questions about the system arise.
In season, Uhlenhake is an organic farmer who plants 300 acres of corn, beans, barley, oats and alfalfa. A 31 bushel an acre yield for soybeans doesn’t seem like much, Earl says, but Kurt sure feels good about the $18 a bushel check it fetched this year. “The farmers who get 60 bushels an acre and $5 a bushel, he’s way ahead of them,” says Earl. “He cultivates a lot. When he started burning weeds this year, it helped yield tremendously. After the corn comes up [Kurt] pulls a propane tank around connected to a flame thrower. He burns the weeds right off, eight rows at a time.”
One organic farmer Earl knows with three Aqua-Ozone units receives “$4 a hundred more” for his organic milk than “regular” milk producers receive for theirs.
Born To Be An Entreprenuer
“I enjoy a good challenge,” says Earl Rients, past and current owner of more than a few entrepreneurial ventures. “I dream a lot at night thinking how to accomplish something. Some nights I’ll get up at two in the morning, scribble an idea on a note pad, and work on it the next day. That’s how my water systems were put together. I still do it.”
He was born and raised in Lakefield, Minn., south of Windom, on a dairy, hog, turkey and chicken farm. Even though his father had to quit farming because of poor health when he was 14, Earl was still looking forward to a career in farming after high school until a major surgery on a cyst, which kept him from sitting on a tractor, forced him to reconsider his career path. (In total, he has had three cyst-related surgeries, and the pain still bothers him today.)
So as a 19-year-old he bought a small candy and tobacco wholesale company, which he built up and sold four years later before enrolling in a trade school that taught him electronics. After electronics school he worked for Bell Telephone in Minneapolis for eight years as a troubleshooter. “Bell Telephone kept promising me things and promising things but they never delivered,” he says. “It was frustrating.”
One day a lawn and garden salesman talked him into selling lawn and garden equipment “where I could make better money” than at Bell Telephone. After four years of lawn and garden sales he bought a NAPA auto parts store in St. Peter where he could have a “better place to raise children.” He owned and operated the NAPA store from 1973 through 1981.
The stereotypical entrepreneur who wouldn’t let grass grow under his feet, Earl kept looking for a new and better challenge before finding one in 1981 when he sold NAPA to purchase Tri-County Water, a St. Peter-based water softener business. “Even before starting in the water softener business,” he says, “I always knew there were problems with water quality.” Today he continues Tri-County Water as a sideline, but doesn’t actively pursue new business, choosing to service only about 250 old customers.
Given his farm background, entrepreneurial savvy, experience with electronics and sales – and being the owner of a water softener company – it was a natural for him to begin tinkering at building a better water system for farm families and animals. His first water test was held in 1983, he says, “out on Roger Moore’s farm in Searles, near New Ulm. I sold him a chlorinator. Within three days his animals had more health problems, not less, so we disconnected it.” Earl shrugs his shoulders at what he learned from his entry into farm water treatment, but doesn’t appear too upset about it now: the same Searles farmer who pulled his plug later purchased an Aqua-Ozone system.
In 1986, after learning of a company that could manufacture a good water treatment system complete with an ozone generator, he traveled to Wisconsin immediately and brought back several systems for testing out on a farm, with the intent of being a distributor for the company. He liked and later sold hundreds of the units, but wasn’t too happy with its “corona discharge” technology that resulted in what he felt were too many service calls.
In 1990, his Wisconsin supplier went belly up, so he had to find another. Six ozone making companies were queried, and they all sent him generators, which were then installed and tested on various farms. He chose one made in California, “a Cadillac in quality, but not in price,” he says. He sold their unit for about four years, hated the service calls from the corona discharge technology, again, and decided to make a better mousetrap this time with his own hands.
“The ozone people told me my idea would never work,” he says, scratching his head as if he couldn’t believe he’d ever bought into their reasoning. “Since they were the experts, I thought, and knew what they were talking about, I packed up my creation and put it in the back of my garage after completing it 3/4ths of the way.”
About that time his wife became very ill, and Earl spent about six months tending to her before she passed away.
A few months after her death, a friend of his said: “Earl, we’re going to pull that machine of yours out of the garage and work on it.” A prototype was installed on Rients’ daughter’s farm near St. Peter, where he has made only two minor changes to it since. It still runs. After selling forty machines over the past four years, and with results that match the prototype’s, he feels “pretty confident” there won’t be many problems beyond what he and Kurt Uhlenhake have already experienced.
Two mechanical parts of the current Aqua-Ozone system are made by the same California company he sold for until 1995. The plastic holding tanks, which range in size from 55 gallons for home use to 3,000 gallons for a farm, are manufactured in Iowa. A friend bends and welds the aluminum framework. But don’t look for an endorsement from Better Homes & Gardens on his invention anytime soon, he says, because “when you’re way out in the sticks, they don’t think anything good can come from here. All I have to say is this: the people who have it are very happy with it.”
He’s Poppin’ Up All Over
In late 1995, after his wife passed away, Earl Rients bought Catsaway Cafe, at 402 South Third in St. Peter, and reopened it as Ooodles Cafe. He’d always wanted in the restaurant business. The odd name came from a good friend from Calmar, Iowa, who had just sold an Ooodles Restaurant in 1994. The name became available when the new owners, a large chain, dropped it.
Sales have increased about fivefold, which is “much better than I thought they would ever be,” he says. The restaurant business means more work, and it’s very time-consuming, but Earl claims he has some very good employees who keep the family-style restaurant going. A restaurant spin-off, Ooodles Catering, last year began serving all the inmates at the Nicollet County jail three times a day, and several daycare centers four days a week.
He also owns Grandpa’s Popcorn Wagon, which has “popped” at the Nicollet County Fair every year since 1990. This past October he popped alongside his second wife during Meadowbrook Stable’s Halloween celebration. The popcorn wagon and the relationships he builds with customers is relaxing, he says, and it takes his mind off other work.
As if all this weren’t enough, lately Earl has been waking up in the middle of the night again, scribbling on note pads, and trying to work out the bugs on an ozone drinking water unit that is now about 3/4ths assembled. “Everyone seems worried about their water,” he says. “Years ago a guy told me water would eventually cost more per gallon than antifreeze. And we’re at that point now. Convenience stores today charge $1 or more for twenty ounces of bottled water.” One day, he claims, he’ll pull “that machine out from underneath the bench and start working on it,” just like he built his prototype farm unit.
©1999 Connect Business Magazine