Last week, Leo Johnson (recently retired chairman of Johnson Tractor, Janesville, Wis.) and I took our mutual friend and Farm Equipment inaugural Hall of Fame class  inductee Paul Wallem to lunch. Leo was planting but said he could free himself to grab a bite at the fast-service Boxcar diner in downtown Clinton, Wis. (pop. 2,215). 

The timing was perfect as we just received our shipment of Dealer Hall of Fame hardcover books that several companies (including the IH Collector’s Club and Topcon) stepped forward to support so each of the HOF-ers and their families would receive a gift of their accomplishments for posterity.

Leo, who has made the transition to full-time farmer (1,700 total acres with 1,000 under his management) in retirement, told me the coordinates of the farm field where I’d find him. I verified the location again in the morning and headed to the specified field in Clinton, about 45 minutes from our offices in Brookfield, Wis.

IMG_0561.jpgTaken from his Dodge Durango, Farm Equipment’s Mike Lessiter is in pursuit of an on-fire Case IH tractor driven by Leo Johnson.

I was even a few minutes ahead of schedule when a Case IH 340 tillage tractor pulling a Norwood Sales Kwik-Tool was suddenly roading right toward me. I squinted to see if it was Leo behind the wheel as he passed me. Calculating the odds on this quiet country road, I did a U-turn and caught up with him as he pulled off on the shoulder before crossing the highway. He yelled out a quick “Hi Mike,” as I watched him scurry to the other side of the tractor. I cooly sauntered up only to discover he had a fire under the hood. “Tell Patrick to go back to the farm and get the fire extinguisher!” he shouted as his 31-year-old son’s truck appeared. 

I called out to Patrick, who got the message and about-faced in his truck as I hobbled in closer to see how I might help. “Mike, find me a stick!” and I grabbed a wooden stake from the ditch. 

“Damn bird’s nest,” Leo surmised, as we saw the last of the bright orange straw burn out.

Leo was still pivoting to each side of the tractor when Patrick returned with the extinguisher, but by then the fire was under control.

But Leo learned a lesson about first-of-the-seasons startups: 1). Never underestimate the expert “stick-finding” skills of an ag business journalist and 2) keep the fire protection in the cab, where it belongs.

Leo got the tractor going again and I followed him for a couple of miles to another field, where we’d planned to directly leave to meet Wallem. But as he got out of the cab, he said that he was seeing error messages, so there’d been fire damage. 

Since we were still a few minutes ahead of schedule in meeting Wallem, we drove back to what he described as his “new world headquarters” at the former Dairyland Seed farm he’d acquired for his growing farm operation. Inside was an expansive, clean and well-lit shop containing his red combine and some tools. 

IMG_0586.jpgIMG_0587.jpgIMG_0583.jpgWith his office “repurposed” at the Janesville store, the farm in Clinton serves as his “world headquarters.” Adorning the wall are some historical pictures, including the young whippersnapper salesman who was bothering Paul Wallem and other dealers in southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois.

We entered his office, which I learned truly is his daily hangout since his wife, Sue, opted NOT to give him joint squatting rights in her office in Janesville. As he called the tractor damage in to the dealership, I took notice of a “swank” office with a full kitchenette, recliner, big-screen TV, windowed view of the farm out back and yes, a desk on whiteboard for “work purposes.” I also wondered how many times I’d had him on the phone for important business not knowing that the was watching Hunt for Red October or Metallica: Through the Never at the same time.

Lunch with Paul Wallem

We drove to the Boxcar diner in downtown Clinton, which incidentally is also the home of another Farm Equipment Hall of Fame dealer, Orhan “The Turk” Yirmibesh.

As we entered the old restaurant, Leo shared that the old bank building later had been taken over by hippies in the 1960s. It was where he heard Led Zeppelin for the first time, he recalls. 

Wallem was seated in the front room when we arrived. Over chili and cheeseburgers, we caught up with the 90-year-old Wallem, our first time seeing him out and about since his wife, Joan, passed away at the end of the year. We presented him with a signed card from the Farm Equipment staff and a copy of the 64-page “hot off the presses” hardcover Farm Equipment Dealer Hall of Fame book, which he was thrilled to receive. 

Opening-Gift-2.jpgHOF-book.jpgThanks to the generosity of 22 advertisers in the first-ever Farm Equipment Hall of Fame edition last February, hardcover books were presented for each of the HOF recipients and their families.

To our surprise, he too was bearing gifts; this time his newest book, The Drives of My Life From Hand Crank to the EV Revolution, which I started last week and was sucked right into it. (Wallem is a gifted writer and most famous for his volumes on International Harvester and even a novel that is a favorite of mine for the leadership values it extols through a creative storytelling and unique business situation.)

Drives-of-My-Life-book.jpgThe Drives of My Life book that author Paul Wallem presented us in return.

The pair started to go down memory lane, but I found Leo too eager to get back to planting to properly provoke the pair about the time a young Johnson wandered way outside of his AOR into Illinois, and the “sit-down” requested by area dealers, including Wallem. Since Leo won’t be present for my next outing with Wallem (he  is coming to Brookfield offices next), we can tell some great tales about Johnson — and without rebuttal.

IMG_0619.jpgFrom l, Farm Equipment’s Mike Lessiter, 2024 inaugural Farm Equipment Dealer Hall of Famer Paul Wallem and retired Case IH dealer Leo Johnson of Johnson Tractor.

On our drive back to the farm after lunch, we saw a Johnson Tractor mobile service vehicle already parked by the fire-damaged tractor. Lesson: If you want lightning-fast on-farm service, being the chairman of the board of a farm equipment company with your name on the door doesn’t hurt.

With all three of us back in the soybean field for a few minutes, Leo shared the how’s and why’s of what he’s doing this year with strip-till and how he and Patrick were planting into their first strips. (For more on Johnson’s presentation at the National Strip-Tillage Conference, click here.

IMG_0635.jpgLeo Johnson checks the seed depth of son Patrick’s planting into last year’s soybean field as Paul Wallem looks on.

Soon, Patrick approached our corner of the field in a Case IH 250 row-crop tractor pulling a Case IH 2150 16-row planter. I shook hands with Paul and quickly made plans for his visit to our offices, and hopped into the tractor with Patrick to claim the buddy seat for the next couple of hours.

Planting & Another Surprise

Up in the cab, Patrick explained that he was setting the boundaries and headlands so there was manual driving involved. We talked a bit about the presentation that he’s making with cousin Kathryn HesebeckEric Johnson’s daughter, at the Dealership Minds Summit, to address how the company’s very unique succession plan worked — from their point of view.

Following graduation from Yale, Patrick worked in Russia for Bunge, while Kathryn got her start at Case IH. In the meantime, Eric Reuterskiold, the Johnson brothers' choice for successor, was getting things ready for the transition and growth that was to come in short order.

We hadn’t had the planter in the soil for long when Patrick saw an alert on the display. He stopped and tried several adjustments to no avail. “Something’s wrong with Row 10,” he says. We got out and walked to the back of the planter as he checked things over before we returned to the tractor.

Patrick-Checking-Monitor.jpgLessiter’s presence in the cab brought Patrick Johnson some bad luck with row unit #10, but Jason Pennycook, Johnson Tractor’s precision guru, “worked the gremlins out” in record time.

Back in the cab, he was still seeing error messages for Row 10. After several more minutes of in-cab troubleshooting, he dialed up the inhouse expert. For those of you who’ve attended the Precision Farming Dealer Summit each January, you already know who we’re talking about. In short order, Johnson Tractor’s Precision Ag Specialist Jason Pennycook was on the line. Patrick dictated what he was seeing and Jason said he’d call back with some potential solutions.

Sure enough, Jason was soon back with us on Facetime and had Patrick point the iPhone camera at the display. Jason calmly gave some instructions and told Patrick to give it another go. Patrick got things going, but Row 10 barked at him again. About this time, Johnson’s top service tech Andy, who’d been helping Leo with the tractor stopped to see if he could assist. He and Patrick finagled a few things on the ports and Patrick soon waved for me to join him again in the cab.

“All good,” he says, and we laughed about the magic of Pennycook, who Patrick says had been pulling double duty for weeks with the area’s planting just getting going. “Yup, he’s very valuable when it comes to dealing with those gremlins that creep up.” It seemed that the system needed only a few unplugs and restarts and a sprinkling of Pennycook’s fairy dust — however he did it through the iPhone.

The rest of the planting went smoothly and I peppered Patrick with dumb questions while he got to his lunch — a turkey sandwich — at nearly 3 p.m. Once all the headlands and boundaries were set, Patrick dropped me off at my truck, and I drove to find Leo back at the shed where his tractor had been pulled back to the shop a few minutes earlier. 

LEO-BY-HIS-STRIP-TILL-RIG.jpgLeo Johnson shows off his KuhnKrause strip-till rig that built the strips last fall that prepared his fields for today’s planting.

We talked more specifically about both his new strip-till program and the succession planning story, which is as impressive a story as any I’d seen in my 20 years covering farm machinery dealers. What he and his brother, Eric, laid out 10 years earlier was right on the mark. With great foresight and sticking to the plan, the kids were now back and earning the leadership roles that the Johnsons and Reuterskiold had prepped for them. For more on this story, and from perspectives of the leader, independent successor and ensuing generation, make sure you’re in the ballroom at the 2024 Farm Equipment Dealership Minds Summit this August.

Parting Thoughts

Time is a precious commodity for everyone at this time of year, but I’d suggest that each of you — and your team — get as much “buddy seat” time as you can with your customers this spring. In addition to candid and forward-thinking discussions that the cab boredom brings, many of you will learn of new purchase plan opportunities, or at least the chance to “play hero” on a tractor fire.