EYOTA, Minnesota — The business of St. Joseph Equipment is keeping farmers in southeast Minnesota in business.
Chuck Schams, store manager at St. Joseph Equipment as well as vice president of the company, said staff members at St Joseph Equipment in Eyota are doing all they can to continue that service while the supply chain is delaying shipments on essential parts for operators at crucial times like harvest season.
"In the farm equipment business, with lots of varieties of machines out there, having the right parts is just extremely important for our customers," said Schams. "And it's always a problem when they're on backorder."
Schams said that most farmers understand that if they want to get a part, "they better order it early." But farmers who've experienced breakdowns and need parts immediately are reaching out to dealerships statewide or to surrounding states. Schams said the Eyota store is getting those kind of calls this fall.
"We're getting calls from quite a few places just because we have something, but at the same time, we really want to sell in our territory," said Schams. " We really want to cater to the people that we need to in our area, but get a lot of calls that you wouldn't normally get, from two or three states away."
Schams said that delays have happened throughout the history of St. Joseph Equipment, which began as a tractor dealership in 1948 in the village of St. Joseph, Wisconsin, but the pandemic brought inventory shortages the company has never experienced before.
"It didn't start immediately with the pandemic, but over time," he said. "It's not only the parts that you can't get, but you can't get full machines either."
He said on average, things come in about six months later than usual, and in some cases a year.
Having a shortage of truckers to transport parts is also contributing to delays, said Jeff Underdahl, who works in parts at St. Joseph Equipment.
"Some of the products just sit weeks on end, waiting to find a truck," he said.
Shortages in people, too
Parts are causing supply chain issues that Schams believes haven't yet peaked in severity. But personnel shortages at factories are also causing backlogs.
He said one of the smaller suppliers to St. Joseph Equipment went from having a 200-crew factory pre-pandemic, and now "can't get back above 80."
"And so what are these guys doing now, or not coming back to work for?" he said. "I don't know the reason, it's just an example of what's happened."
Despite the shortages causing issues for farmers and headaches for staff in Eyota, Schams said it's not hurting the business "as much as you'd think."
"If anything it's caused a bit of panic buying, and some people are buying because they're thinking, boy, I better buy now," said Schams. "So they are maybe being a little bit less cautious about pulling the trigger, and it actually hasn't affected negatively too much."
A larger looming threat to implement dealers like St. Joseph Equipment is finding young parts specialists and mechanics.
Jeff Underdahl has worked with the company for almost as long as Schams, who's been with St. Joseph "his whole life."
About two years ago, Underdahl switched from the sales department to parts because they "couldn't find another parts person to save our behind" for the Eyota location. He said the only thing similar about the two jobs was the connections.
"I still have my people that I've developed over the last 25 years, that will only talk to me," said Underdahl.
Underdahl started in the service side of the business in 1978, and switched to sales in 1990. He said by 2020, the trend of being short-staffed on the service and parts sides had set in.
"It seems like nobody wants to work for a living anymore," he said, only half joking. "Especially on the ag side."
Maybe the shortage is partly due to a wave of retirements, said Underdahl. Or maybe its more systemic, having to do with how young people are trained into hands-on careers. Mulling other potential reasonings, he said the knowledge required to be a mechanic, or to work in parts, was deep.
People raised on operations or who had their first jobs on farms have the quickest line into the industry, he said.
"You gotta have the background," he said. "Mine came from growing up on a farm."
He still chose to pursue further education, and got his associate's degree in auto mechanics, which allowed him to find work in more sectors than just ag. He worked for a cab company but left before the entire industry declined.
It was coincidence that he found himself back on the ag side of business. He was picking up a part for a tractor one Thursday, and the owner, a friend of Underdahl's for years, asked why he was there on a weekday. Underdahl told him he was in-between jobs.
"He asked me 'You wanna start tomorrow or you wanna start Monday?'" said Underdahl. "That was my interview."
Working in parts for an implement dealer sometimes means working long hours, said Underdahl, but it wasn't all the time and it never got too overwhelming.
"Every four weeks it's a pain in the drain," said Underdahl.
He said St. Joseph Equipment has an after-hours service (which farmers rarely use past 7 p.m.) so his phone is always on him during that time, including on weekends. He has to be less than 20 minutes away from a possible call.
"The store closes around noon on Saturday," he said. "So from 12:30 p.m. Saturday until Sunday evening, you never know what's going to happen."
"In this job, you can actually feel like you're part of the economy. This is actually doing something that contributes to livelihoods, and helps keep the industry going."
- Taylor Koens
Koens said he works "at least" 40 hours a week right now but his hours will increase this spring when he starts handling after hours calls, taking some of the load off Underdahl.
Underdahl said Koens was the only person under 35 to inquire about the parts position he has now. The position went unfilled for so long they resorted to targeting recent retirees from parts.
"But then we're not gaining anything for down the road," said Underdahl of hiring a retiree over a young person.
Koens' mom's side of the family has roots in southeast Minnesota but he grew up in Apple Valley, a suburb of the Twin Cities. His family has a "long line of farmers" in it, he said, so like Underdahl, he had the right background to enter the industry in stride.
Koens said he didn't really consider post-secondary education after he graduated high school. From a young age he thrived at mechanical things and knew it was his calling. Koens' first professional experience in parts was at a bike shop.
At 23, Koens said he doesn't know anybody even close to his age working in parts at an ag dealership. He estimated there were more young mechanics in the area than young people working in parts, but only because he personally knew a couple of them.
He said he understands why more young people aren't farming, with the debt needed to take on their own operation. He didn't know why there was a lack of young mechanics and parts workers, though.
Koens said the work he does at St. Joseph Equipment feels more fulfilling than other jobs he's had in parts. For example, at the bike shop, he had a hard time taking people seriously when they "needed" a part for their bike.
"You can get places and exercise other ways, or find another bike to use," said Koens.
But parts for farm equipment carry a greater importance, he said, both respectively and as a whole.
"In this job, you can actually feel like you're part of the economy," said Koens of his parts position at St. Joseph Equipment. "This is actually doing something that contributes to livelihoods, and helps keep the industry going."