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True North Equipment has four stores in North Dakota and Minnesota is owned and managed by Dan Gorder, left, president and John C. Oncken, right, vice president. Each manages two stores.

True North Equipment has four stores in North Dakota and Minnesota is owned and managed by Dan Gorder, left, president and John C. Oncken, right, vice president. Each manages two stores. Photo By John Oncken

Oncken family thriving in North Dakota

Jan. 8, 2013 | 0 comments

It's been well over two years since my wife and I have made the 1,200-mile round trip from our home in Dane County and back to visit son John and his family in northeast North Dakota.

It's a long and rather boring trip with only a couple of stoplights in Fargo, all but about 10 miles on interstate highways and all but 70 miles on I-94.

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

Readers often ask for an update on him and more about North Dakota farming.

So here is a bit of an update.

Son John was a 1988 graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Platteville and began work with John Deere the day after graduation in their marketing management training program. After several years as an after market manager in Minnesota, Montana and North Dakota, he and his family moved to Davenport, IA, where he worked at the John Deere corporate office on the development of the rotary combine.

With the rotary combine ready to be marketed, John chose to return to sales where he could work with farmers, That 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. The same thing has happened in the big cropping states like North Dakota.

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and daughters did not want to continue the business, couldn't afford to buy it from parents, or the facilities were outdated or too small to handle the ever-bigger tractors, combines and tillage equipment.

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

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.

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 - at Northwood and Grand Forks - while Gorder serves as company president and manages stores at Grafton and in Kennedy, MN.

Dan and John are about the same age and seem to make a great team as the company has grown tremendously in sales, employees and reputation.

About a year ago, in order to put a single company name to the four locations, the name was changed from Grafton Equipment to True North Equipment.

A different way of farming

Farming in North Dakota and the farm equipment used is far different from that in Wisconsin.

Most striking is that ,unlike in Wisconsin, dairy farms are few and far between. This means farmers won't find dairy equipment in a John Deere dealership, nor do they suffer from low milk prices as many Wisconsin equipment dealers did during the low milk prices of 2009.

What one will find is an agricultural economy based on cropping using big equipment on big farms to raise sugar beets, wheat, canola, dry edible beans and peas, sunflowers, lentils and soybeans.

Not only will the tillage equipment be big - 54 feet or more wide - GPS guidance and mapping systems are used by most all farmers.

Why GPS? It's expensive and farmers got along for years without it.

Years ago when John Deere (and my son John) were holding a field day demonstrating the then-new GreenStar GPS system, I was visiting his family at the time and attended the event. I asked a farmer why he was buying his second GPS.

"My fields are a mile long and I have to look backwards to see if I'm overlapping or missing space as I run tillage equipment or a spray rig. I'm worried and get emotionally upset," he said. "I couldn't eat or sleep and was near a nervous breakdown. The GreenStar GPS solved my dilemma and probably saved my life."

Sugar beets and potatoes are major crops in eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota, meaning different kinds of equipment is used for heavy duty digging and hauling.

American Crystal Sugar Company is an agricultural cooperative owned by some 3,000 shareholders who raise 500,000 acres of sugar beets in the Red River Valley of Minnesota and North Dakota, producing about 15 percent of America's highest quality sugar. (This brand can be purchased at most any grocery store.)

In contrast to much of rain-starved Wisconsin, this area had a great 2012 with a record sugar beet crop year in both yield (27.1 tons per acre) and sugar content (19.14 percent).

Breadbasket of America

To many folks, North Dakota is a barren, cold, windy land, flat as a pancake and a place to drive through on their way west.

Mostly true, but the eastern part of the state is also the home of the Red River that divides North Dakota and Minnesota and cuts through ancient glacial Lake Agassiz. The area contains soil often called the richest in the world, leading to the claim that the Red River Valley is "The Breadbasket of America."

True, farms are a long way apart in much of the state with one's nearest neighbor maybe miles away. Many of the former farm towns that once thrived are now near vacant, as are former farmsteads once occupied by homesteaders who "didn't make it" and moved on.

The normally calm and not very wide Red River has flooded from spring snow melts over the years - remember the 1997 flood that devastated Grand Forks with water and fires? The river doesn't really have banks and the water spreads miles out from the channel, leaving thousands of acres of farmland under water during those flood years.

A few years ago, water completely isolated the city of Oslo, MN, which had wisely built a dike around the city to protect it from such floods. All the roads were underwater, but the city survived in good shape and, after a dry out, the crops went in.

As True North Equipment has grown in size and stature - a new headquarters building is planned for this spring to accommodate the growing employee team - John's family has also grown up.

Daughter Megan attends UM-Moorehead, son Joey is at the University of North Dakota, and Nicole is a freshman in high school.

While agriculture has long been the biggest economic enterprise in the state, the oil boom in western North Dakota is changing many things, including the economy.

The Oncken family in North Dakota seems to have found a new home a long way from Sun Prairie and Dodgeville (his wife Joan's home) and couldn't be happier, even though they live in a state where hockey is king and there is no pro football team.

But, there are farmers, farming and big green equipment - the things that son John has always seen as a life work. All is well.        

John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information and consulting company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624 or e-mail him at jfodairy@chorus.net.

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