Archive for Sunday, August 5, 2001

Shifting the family business

Implement dealers evolve as farms shrink, city expands

August 5, 2001


Four decades after his uncle introduced corn combines into Douglas County, Kevin Harper sees the family business evolving yet again.

In the same showroom where Lloyd Deems convinced area farmers to buy corn headers for their combines speeding cultivation of a crop that would grow dominant in the area a whole new era of equipment and merchandise now awaits.

Small tractors, chain saws, lawn mowers and grass trimmers cater to an increasingly urban clientele folks with fescue lawns instead of feed-corn fields at Deems Farm Equipment, 1110 E. 23rd St.

Today nearly half of the dealer's floor is occupied by shelves and racks filled with John Deere collectibles, toys and other products: key chains, pillows, radio-controlled race cars and rolls of vinyl wallpaper border.

Instead of picking up a new $175,000 combine, today's Deems customer is more likely to take one home for $42 the price of a die-cast metal replica of the John Deere 9510 Maximizer.

"Toys are big business for us, especially around Christmas time," said Harper, the shop's general manager. "Half of the customers who walk in the door in the wintertime are looking for toys.

"We're not Wal-Mart by any stretch, but the toys (section) grows every year."

While the demand for toys grows, Harper and other implement dealers say they are busy grappling with a shriveling market for their big-ticket equipment and other farm business.

Pressures brought on by a sagging farm economy, low commodities prices and an increasingly urban push along the edges of Lawrence and surrounding communities are taking a toll at Deems and McConnell Machinery Co. Inc., 1111 E. 23rd St.

Witnesses to growth

The two implement businesses have been operating across the street from each other since 1961, when McConnell opened along what to that point was a sleepy state highway without another building nearby.

Today, the vast expanses have been replaced by bustling bastions of commerce. Deems is wedged between a chiropractor's complex and a rental-car company; next to McConnell are a payday loans outlet and a motorcycle shop.

City officials have considered transforming 23rd Street into a cohesive commercial corridor, one lined with landscaping and medians instead of a hodgepodge of driveways. The nearby Farmers Cooperative Assn. went bankrupt, and was forced to sell its South Elevator complex and a convenience store for likely commercial redevelopment.

Farmers at the edge of town continue selling their land to developers, who build new roads, homes and businesses in a struggle to keep pace with demand. And as the city expands, the number of family farms shrinks.

Doris McConnell remembers when virtually all of her business' customers came from a farm, looking for a combine, tractor, header or any number of agricultural products.

Nowadays, farmers represent only 75 percent of McConnell Machinery's business in Lawrence. More compact tractors and lawn mowers are being sold, with customers coming from the 5- and 10-acre home sites that previously combined to form 1,000-acre farming operations.

"You don't want progress to stop, but still it just looks like to me they're going wild with all the building homes, shopping centers, all those things," McConnell said. "Just in the last few years it's gone wild. There's just less and less farmers."

All in the families

Both McConnell Machinery and Deems Farm Equipment are family operations. At Deems, Harper leads a team of his three siblings: Rod Harper, Libby Renick and Kathi Marshall.

McConnell runs her place with her son, Daren McConnell; the family's other dealership, in Ottawa, is operated by Doris McConnell's husband, Elmer McConnell, and daughters Debbie Moyer and Dee Dee Erlacher.

"Selling out has crossed our minds," Doris McConnell said, "but it's all we've known, and the kids are all in it. It's been a family thing for a lot of years. It's hard to give up."

Kevin Harper doesn't expect to get out of the business anytime soon. Deems has plenty of commercial contracts and a solid repair business to help weather downturns in the farm economy, he said.

"We're here for the long haul," he said. "It might not be passed to another generation, because we don't know where the farm economy's going from here on, but we're here for the long haul."

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