Niche marketing: you have to be good at it

Wisconsin State Farmer

When I arrived at his shop located on the fringe of the Arlington industrial park on land once occupied by a big canning company (Del Monte?) John Friske was working on a John Deere corn planter.

“This is a model 7200, six-row planter dating to the early 1990s,” Friske explained. “It’s owned by a local farmer and I’m replacing a bunch of worn parts.”

Friske also had another 7200 nearby needing some fixing that  has been sold to a Hollandale farmer and a couple of newer model 1750s that are about 10 years old waiting to be sold.  

John Friske, John Deer corn planter expert.

These three six-row corn planters take up a lot of the space in Friske’s Drumlin Equipment building and along with the walls lined with boxes of replacement parts and odds and ends of new and used wheels and such means one has to sort of ease your way around the building. 

14 years ago

It’s been a good while — near 14 years in fact — since I last talked with entrepreneur and John Deere corn planter expert John Friske at his shop, then in Columbus just off US Highway 151.  At the time, he and employee Allen Wolfe were busy renovating a 12 row John Deere corn planter for a farmer customer. 

Actually I had first met Friske some five years earlier when he and his Drumlin Equipment were located in a rental complex just east of Madison on old Highway 30. Then as now, he was working rebuilding and marketing older, smaller (4 to 12 row) John Deere corn planters and combine heads.

Friske specializes in John Deere corn planters.

Friske had emailed me about his experiences of marketing used farm equipment overseas to New Zealand and Myanmar (formerly Burma) and how he had gotten involved through meeting the owner of a New Zealand farm equipment dealership which led to a number of transactions between the two.

One such sale involved a combine forage head that was sent to New Zealand where it didn’t get sold and the dealer shipped it back to Drumlin Equipment.  

“That was a well-traveled forage head,” John said. “Over 16,000 miles of travel in a shipping container, 8,000 miles each way. I eventually sold it to a farmer at Wilmar, Minnesota.” 

On to Columbus

Friske soon moved from the rented space to a 5 acre plot and building he bought just off US 151 at Columbus where he headquartered until about 10 years ago. Today and for the past 10 years Friske works out of a 60 by 100 foot building in Arlington after selling his previous acreage and shop at Columbus to MidState Equipment.  And, he works alone. His previous employee Allen Wolfe now has his own ag equipment repair and sales company near Marshall.

As he did when I first met him a couple decades ago, John Friske specializes in the repair, reconditioning and rebuilding of older and smaller John Deere corn planters.  Although he favors working on corn planters he also works with corn and forage combine heads, also John Deere.

Needs a new bolt and narrowed hole.

“Why John Deere,” I asked. 

“That goes back in history,” Friske began. “I was a farm boy from Kendall, “My nephew Brian is still on the home farm and hosted the county Dairy Breakfast last June," he proudly stated. 

“I started at the UW-Madison as a geology major, but after a year and a half, left to work at Ballweg Chevrolet in Sauk City and for 10 years at Zimbric, Inc. in Madison in the service department.”

Back to the U.W

“I had always regretted not getting a college degree, so went back to school, to the U.W.College of Agriculture, and got a degree in Agriculture Mechanization and Management in 1989,” Friske admits.

“During the summers I worked with Curt Hanson at Mid-State Equipment in Columbus and later on contracted with them reconditioning used farm equipment,” Friske continued. “I give a lot of credit to Curt for my start. In February 1991, I went on my own and incorporated in 1996. Friske admits to being a John Deere guy, “I just like their equipment and their parts availability.”

One of the dozen older John Deere tractors being stored for later display at shows.

It’s changed

Friske admits his business has changed over the years. Early on he got much of the smaller corn planters from John Deere dealers who were taking them in on trades for bigger equipment and didn’t have the time to recondition and repair them. “They were glad that I took them off their hands,” Friske says.  

“Now they may use the internet and their potential market widens” Friske says. “Same for farmers who often use Craigslist in an attempt to sell their older and used equipment. Then there are the big farm equipment auctions like Auction Time.com and Big Iron.com. “  

The I-net comes on the scene

Friske also sources used and repairable equipment from the internet and especially Craigslist. “Oftentimes farmers want smaller equipment but they want it to be in useable condition or in many cases modified for their use. 

Friske admits he does not travel the midwest seeking used equipment as he once did and his New Zealand importer friend is no longer in business so he is not sending big equipment overseas anymore. “But, I do send $10 - $15,000 of parts annually to that country,” Friske says. 

Boxes and boxes of parts.

And, of course farming has changed over the past couple of decades during which Drumlin Equipment has been in business as small farms are fewer and big farms are bigger. 

“Yes, farms are getting bigger and so is the equipment used to run them”, Friske agrees, “but my demand comes from the many small farms that are still in business, part time farmers and beginning farmers".  

For instance there are two brothers and a cousin from southwest Wisconsin who each traded for somewhat bigger and more specialized corn planters. “They knew my equipment is in great condition, adjusted to their specifications and perhaps a bit less expensive than from a dealer,” he says.    

It’s readily apparent that John Friske still loves what he is doing — buying, fixing, marketing and selling the kind of things farmers in the midwest need and want.

“You’re still a niche marketer,” I suggested.

Drumlin Equipment is a niche company.

Friske agreed and said word of mouth is a big factor in his continuing business. "Customers know that the things I sell are reconditioned and are quality machines." (You can call Drumlin Equipment at 608-698-8202.)

As John Friske proclaimed to me nearly 20 years ago “I really do enjoy my work,” he exclaims, “I got my college degree when I was 38 years old and I found my home.”

Has he thought much about eventual retirement?  

Old tractors to retire with

Apparently the answer is yes as the dozen old (2 cylinder, pre 1960) John Deere tractors stored in the back half of his shop) await his eventual attention: someday. 

John Friske is one of many agricultural entrepreneurs who specialize in a niche where they excel and enjoy. Isn’t that what life is about? I think so.

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-572-0747, or email him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.