Changing ag scene involves not only dairy producers

John Oncken

It's been well over four years since I last made the 1,200-mile round trip from my home in Dane County to visit son John and his family in northeast North Dakota. The occasion was the marriage of his oldest child Megan. And, a lot of things have happened since that time including the death of my wife Jan a few months later, 

Readers often ask for an update on son John and his North Dakota family. John and Joan are building a new house, daughter Nicole and son Joe are in college. Daughter Megan and her husband Brock made me a great grandfather with the arrival of their daughter Reese and just last week, son John and his business partner Dan Gorder made a major change in their John Deere dealership.

Some of you knew John during his dairy cattle showing days in 4-H, his college days fitting dairy cattle and from occasional columns I've written over the years. 

To John Deere

John, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Platteville began work with John Deere the day after graduation in their marketing management training program. After several years as an aftermarket manager in Minnesota, Montana and North Dakota, he and his family moved to Davenport, Iowa, where he worked at the John Deere corporate office on the development of the rotary combine. 

Big acreage of wheat means big combines waiting for delivery in the True North Equipment lot.

With the rotary combine ready to be marketed, John chose to return to sales where he could work with farmers. This ultimately brought him to Grand Forks as a John Deere territory manager working with a dozen or so dealers. 

As Wisconsin farmers realize, the number of dairy farms has dramatically decreased in past years, as have the number of major farm equipment dealerships. No, not because the companies forced them out, rather, because sons and daughters did not want to continue the business, couldn't afford to buy it from parents, or the facilities were outdated or too small to handle the ever-bigger tractors, combines and tillage equipment. 

Dealerships merge

The result was many farm equipment dealerships were merged together to form bigger and multi-store operations. The former owners were well paid and well treated and could retire as they had planned.

A partner

John worked with a number of these mergers, several of which resulted in an expansion of Grafton Equipment, a long time John Deere dealership located about an hour north of Grand Forks.

John C. Oncken (left) and Dan Gorder owners of True North Equipment at Grand Fork, ND, recently  acquired Evergreen Equipment thus moving from four to eight John Deere stores.

In 2006, one of the owners of Grafton Equipment retired and the company president Dan Gorder asked John to join the company as a partner, which he did. Since then John has served as company vice president and general manager of two of the company's four stores while Gorder serves as company president and manages the other two stores. 

Growth continues

Dan and John are about the same age and make a great team as the company has grown tremendously in sales, employees and reputation. Several years ago the name was changed from Grafton Equipment to True North Equipment. Of course management procedures have been changed and updated to fit the growing business and a modern Resource Center was built in Grand Forks.  

The Center contains an extensive array of classrooms and electronic equipment used to keep customers and employees up to date on new technology, especially on the rapidly emerging science of precision farming. The Center also serves as the company  headquarters. 

John C, Oncken poses in front of the True North Resource Center.

Over the years the partners had expressed interest in the possibility of expanding the True North Equipment dealership if the opportunity arose. A couple of years ago the possibility of acquiring a neighboring John Deere dealership was vaguely  mentioned.  As time went on discussions began, then got serious and on May 6, I received this news release:

(Grand Forks) “True North Equipment announces acquisition of Evergreen Implement”  

True North Equipment announced it has acquired Evergreen Implement Co., which has stores in Warren, Thief River Falls, Mahnomen and Baudette, Minnesota. 

Grand Forks-based True North Equipment, with retail locations in Grafton, Grand Forks and Northwood, ND, and in Kennedy, MN, now doubles in size to eight retail locations across North Dakota and Minnesota.

“While we have existed as neighboring John Deere dealers for years, we share very similar values and ambitions for our business,” said True North Equipment President Dan Gorder. "This acquisition allows us to better serve our customers throughout Minnesota and North Dakota by being more accessible.”

We want to see what we’ve built be maintained and grow,” said Evergreen owner Brent Lunke. “You get to a spot where you have to either move forward or stop growing. You have to continue to find ways to grow. With True North Equipment, we believe this is the best step forward for everyone.”

The Red River Valley is sometimes called ‘The Nations Breadbasket” with sugar beets a main crop.

Both companies come from long lines of multi-generational John Deere families; Dan’s father Oliver Gorder first purchased a small John Deere dealership in 1949 and Brent’s grandfather Hilmer Lunke began working for a John Deere dealership in the late 1940s as well. Since then, the family lineage of John Deere careers has continued with Brent purchasing what would become Evergreen Implement in 1990 and Dan joining his father to continue building True North Equipment in 1982. 

Today, Dan serves as president of True North Equipment alongside business partner and vice president, John Oncken.  

Over the past century, the company that is now True North Equipment has continued to expand its services in North Dakota, all while seeking to build a company rooted in honesty, integrity, and humility. With the acquisition of the Evergreen Implement Co., locations and employees, Gorder and Oncken embraced an opportunity to continue that growth.

“We are thinking toward the future,” Oncken said. “We lend to each other’s strengths, from the services we provide to the technology and expertise we both bring to the table.”

By bringing together the talent from two organizations together, we will provide an even better customer experience,” Dan said. “We truly will be Greener Together.”

And, so it goes. The days of every town having two or three farm equipment dealerships with service bays smaller than today’s tractors or combines are gone. So are my son’s days driving a pedal tractor around the house, now it’s a $400 thousand dollar John Deere. That’s change!  

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.