The following is the full interview between Mike Lessiter, editor of Farm Equipment, and Joe Bassett of Dawn Manufacturing. Bassett talks through his company’s history, from early memories of Jim Bassett, to the bankruptcy and the moment he realized they would make it.

Mike Lessiter: Someone says, “Tell me what Dawn Equipment’s all about.” How would you answer that question?

Joe Bassett: What Dawn does is we try and make the smartest ground engaging devices in the world. We only make things that either directly touch the soil or are involved with how things touch the soil. Obviously, we’ve shifted from making really basic planter attachments to now making incredibly sophisticated computer controlled ones to high efficiency tillage. I think the undercurrent of all the products is that they’re always kind of at the edge of technology and what’s going on in industry trends.

Mike Lessiter: Very much a design engineering company first and foremost, is that fair to say?

Joe Bassett: Oh yeah. I don’t know how we could stay in business otherwise. We have to, I mean design’s part of just we do and who we are. What I do, I don’t identify as an executive or CEO, I identify as a product designer and in the end having something to sell, knowing what your customers need is the most important thing. So I always think like okay, what is the most important thing for me to be working on. Well that’s understanding what my customers need today, a year from now, and 5 years from now.

Mike Lessiter: You’re definitely cut differently than a lot of executives. I know we’ve talked about it, you’re a self-taught casting designer, those kinds of things.

Joe Bassett: Yeah, I mean, I come from a design background — a product design background. I grew up actually doing a lot of mechanical stuff. I was involved in the business from a very young age. Always loved mechanical stuff. I started working on sports cars when I was 15, I was featured in the Lego Builder magazine when I was a child, I built a robotic hand when I was in college. I like making farm equipment, it’s one of the few fields where an individual inventor can make something and kind of do it in automotive or aerospace or medical or a lot of other kind of design fields, architecture. It’s not quite like a guy can’t just go to a garage and cut…that’s this industry and the industry that Farm Equipment and Lessiter Publications serves is that kind of cottage industry where the individual inventor can go out to the Farm Show, and even though that’s really changing now where you’d have the farmer inventor. I like to think of Dawn as epitomizing the independent spirit of American agriculture.

Mike Lessiter: Take us back into the incorporation of Dawn and what your dad was doing at the time and what the thought process was when you decided to launch the company.

Joe Bassett: I was really a kid, but the way that it worked actually was my father does have some — he’s a professional engineer, he comes from a mechanical engineer background — I was born in Davenport, my father had been working that I think at Harvester Works at the time. They left there much to my mother’s chagrin — she evidently likes being on John Deere health insurance. We moved to Minneapolis St. Paul, we lived in St. Paul, my father worked at the Toro Company designing golf course turf care products.

And then from there we, when I was in maybe 2nd grade, we moved to the Dekalb/Sycamore area of northern Illinois, where we live currently. And my father had started working at what was Barber-Greene which was a manufacturer of paving and road construction equipment. At some point in the early 90s, Barber-Greene was going to sell out the Caterpillar and at the local church that we went to there in Dekalb, the Catholic Church, the Newman Center, my father — we met another family, the Favors, and the company got started actually kind of in talking with Steve Favor who later had a significant career. He was kind of like an electrical engineer, went to the University of Illinois but he was a large farming family locally and he was kind of at the absolute cutting edge of precision farming. They got together and they decided to start a company, and the company was actually started in the basement of the Favor farm out on Fairview Road in Dekalb. And that’s where I remember going over there as a kid and the first product actually — this was kind of — people don’t remember, but ridge till was a big deal back then.

Mike Lessiter: We had a ridge till publication at one time. Ridge Till Hotline.

Joe Bassett: And I remember in my early days people talking about how Buffalo was a big company and talk about the history of short lines. Buffalo is still around, right? I think they’re still actually… and the first product we made was actually a ridge till product which was called the T-knife, and it was a knife for ammonia that you’d run in between the rows of ridges and then it would shoot a band of ammonia out under the ridge. And I’m not totally clear on how it worked, but Howard Martin, who was the original patent holder of the tooth wheel row cleaner, had licensed, sold his patent to John Deere like every farmer inventor probably shops their idea to John Deere, and for whatever reason this tooth wheel row cleaner design John Deere had decided to not produce it internally. And what my father, Jim, has told me is that John Deere came in and basically talked to a few people and they licensed, relicensed the Martin intellectual property to 3 companies, that was us, back to Martin and to Yetter. And that’s how we got into kind of no-till and row cleaning. Because at that time, in the early 90s, Roundup came around and it was just like whoa all of a sudden weed control just got way easier and that just changed, farming got super simple, and all of a sudden no-till became a heck of a lot easier to do no-till because you had glyphosate. And they were like okay well now we can get into no-till.

And so we started making the tooth wheel row cleaner and that’s really where like the core engineering like the fundamentals of Dawn, like making the heaviest built, longest lasting stuff we can possible make. The Dawn tooth wheel row cleaner was always a forged wheel, very good steel, 100% American made, just good quality features. And like they started selling like gang busters.

Mike Lessiter: What year would that have been?

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Joe Bassett: That would have been in the like 1993 to 1996 area. It’s just up and to the right. We moved out of the basement at the Favor farm and then we moved to a little tiny factory on Route 64 on the east edge of Sycamore that’s still there today. And I remember being there because I was already around at that time, I’d push a broom, or some of the employees at that time, nobody wanted to do inventory, so I was 12 or 13 and they would make me do it — I would actually have to do inventory and stuff. But those were good times.

There was another partner, a gentleman named Lee Putney who owned the local Case dealer chain and was also a partner. Things, you know, sales grew really rapidly on the no-till row cleaner products and things kind of went up and to the right and my father, like a lot of people, looked at — they looked at the planters that were out there at that time and they got into all sorts of attachments. Like John Deere put out the 750 drill and they didn’t put a marker on it, so we made a marker and other kind of stuff like that.

And then Jim decided to make what he thought would be the best planter in the world, which is a big jump from when you start making something that’s like this big to making something that is a complete tow behind implement. They did some debt financing and like it was a big project. I remember — today I can’t imagine doing it with like auto cad, you know, doing it with 2D. It was kind of an interesting time. It still would be a very innovative planter today. His philosophy was high speed planting before anyone even thought of it. It was about smaller high speed planters which 25 years — there’s no advantage in business to being ahead of your time. It had a unique metering system, it had a hydraulic down pressure system. Like some of the things that he got into then actually those ideas kind of percolated back up now in our product line as we get into like the Reflex planter automation system, the active control systems that we’re making for some of the Suffield planters.

But that project just — it was going to sell but he kind of ran out of runway, like it wasn’t from a financial standpoint, it did end up bringing the company to the brink of insolvency in the late 90s when I was actually kind of in college at that time. I’d worked there throughout my childhood since I was always around. I remember the faces from back then.

Mike Lessiter: Every business has those moments that you recover from.

Joe Bassett: Actually it was a profound moment for us in the way we run our business up to today, and it has some kind of interesting… so the byproduct of going through bankruptcy at that time was that it basically forced us to — we started self-funding. We started running the business entirely on cash flow and so I came into my career effectively in a business situation which was like you have to make money and make sales, otherwise you don’t make payroll. And always having that discipline, which I frankly think is a really turned out to be one of the greatest gifts that I have because when you look — like today I just acquired Jim’s half of the company from him, that at the age of 37 I own a business of this size 100%. I have, effectively, a debt-free business. It’s a slog, I mean anybody up and down this aisle. I mean farming’s a slog, the industry is so up and down.

Although, to be quite honest… okay, so the company like once a chapter 11 late 90s and like Jim just hung on. I mean I can’t believe it, because he really like I think he — the other…

Mike Lessiter: It’s harder to hang on than it is to walk away.

Joe Bassett: It is, and everybody got paid. Steve had to leave the company, it just shrunk down. Steve went to other stuff and other places. So the company had kind of shrunk way down, but we always had a market for those core products, the Curvetine, the screw-adjust trashwheel just like heavy, there was always people that bought those core basic products from us that kept the business afloat because of never compromising on the quality of the product is what I learned from that. Where if you always focus on making really the best thing you can possibly make, then that’s always a leg to stand on. Whereas once you give up on quality, when you’re in dark times you don’t, why do your customers have any reason to stick by your side.

So when I actually joined the company in 2003 I went to the University of Iowa, I actually studied physics at the University of Iowa, not engineering. I had a great time there. I actually learned — I did a machinist apprenticeship while I was at the University of Iowa, there was a machine shop at the Department of Physics, so I did get a lot of exposure to where I could just build things. I built a robotic human hand, I built a motorcycle — just got to do a lot of stuff. I used to make lab experiments and that was really great for me. I was also getting into computing and other things at that time, too. And at one point there was really a question of the vast majority of people did not think that like joining the family business was the right career choice for me. And I had other offers and in the end did decide to come back to join the business. And that was like one of those critical fork in the road decisions that you’re going to make.

Mike Lessiter: So it was a conscious decision, you had other options you could pursue and you had to stop and think which one.

Joe Bassett: Absolutely. Starting from somewhere is better than starting from nowhere, and I always liked making stuff out of metal and doing mechanical things has always been really what I’m interested in. And so it worked out. And we just tried a lot of different things from like 2003 to like 2007. We made some far out toolbars. That’s when I designed the first strip-till device. I honestly cannot, looking back at it, I cannot believe some of the things we were doing — and you just have to learn from experience. I’m sure looking back at your business you think some of the things you thought about 10 years ago or 15 years ago you just can’t even believe.

So we started making the strip-till units and around 2005, those started selling and continue to evolve, and that provided a little bit of growth for the company. We made the first remotely controllable planter attachment in the world in about 2006, 2007, with the Gfx row cleaner, which now kind of hydraulic stuff in your planter is ubiquitous. At that time we didn’t even — one of the differences with us is that we have the audacity to actual make it ourselves. We have machines, like if you go to Dawn Equipment there’s like people with machines and we make the thing, too. That kind of started clicking. Planters started getting bigger and you started thinking — I’d go out to a customer’s farm and we were dialing knobs to like adjust your row cleaners, and you’re like this just doesn’t — it could take you an hour to go 36 rows doing this.

And so we started making those. Let’s see, that started clicking and we actually started learning how to make hydraulic compact actuation products at that time, more or less just by learning on the go. Around 2007, 2008, 2009 that started clicking. Around 2009 the Pluribus strip unit, 2008, 2009 that started turning into something which was at least a partially mature product. Although it’s really not going to become a fully mature product until actually this year. I haven’t redesigned the Pluribus strip-till unit in like 6 years or 7 years, we’re going to do an actual redesign this year.

Mike Lessiter: In every business there’s those points where you could say “it’s clear we’re going to make it now.” Was there a defining moment?

Joe Bassett: You could tell that the Gfx row cleaner sells and continues to sell and that proved — that moved us into a different place than we were before. That was a product that works extremely well and continues to work really well. Not only that, it lasts for a really long time. That was one of the main things that just like clicked.

Mike Lessiter: And that set the table for…

Joe Bassett: We’re going to make remote control — we’re going to make hydraulically automated things for the planter. Then we go from there and then we look at it and part of it is like just by luck being in the right place. So we were already in 2007 making a hydraulically controlled planter row cleaner that was like a double acting spring with an accumulator in it. Just by dumb luck. Well, I mean it wasn’t, I was actually looking at suspension designs from other heavy vehicles and thinking about how we could use that. And then we started looking at the down pressure, and the John Deere planter row unit had gone from springs to an airbag with the XP row unit I think in like 2000, around that same time.

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And then around that sort of 2007, 2008 period, Precision Planting introduced the Airforce product, which was the double airbags automatically kind of controlling the down pressure on the planter row unit. And I looked at it and I was like, “we’re already making this hydraulic row cleaner attachment, why don’t we just make a hydraulic down pressure product, too?” And that was when we decided you know what, we’re going to actually make a computer controlled product. That was a big step for us. Because going from making something which has 40 parts and is like made out of tubing welded together and like screws and stuff to something which is an active, hydraulic control system for a planter row unit. That was like if I had had people with actual expertise, I wouldn’t have probably done it. If I would have known — like we did not even know what we didn’t know. Because not only are we like, “okay we’re going to make a control system, we’re going to actually make our own cylinders, like these precision cylinders, too, from scratch.”

That put us on a course that of took several years to kind of get, figure out how to make these things correctly and make them with quality. And thank goodness we happened to have some really important early patent filing dates because of just kind of being in the right place at the right time. And that will provide the core of a business moving forward because we made the first row by row controllable down pressure system. There will be now we make the first…what was it…we kind of — that stuff started clicking a couple years ago. Honestly, supplying the factory product to John Deere, John Deere has actually taught us how to do quality control on a level which is like way up because we have learned how to do quality control at a very, very high level, which is required to make products like that. And it’s more or less transformed our business to the point where we — I don’t even know that we shouldn’t be making products that are outside of agriculture. Like when you look at the things we make, it’s like we could be making a lot of different things, which is kind of a fear for me that we would lose that focus on what we do.

So that really, really started clicking on the automatic down pressure control front. The idea that there’s so much attention that had been given to meters and spacing and singulation and clutches, but the uniformity of emergence like I want to be the “uniform emergence company.” Like how do we make the furrow, how do we clear the residue, how do we close it. A couple years ago I started thinking about how we could make the first fully robotic planter row unit. In 2007 we made the first thing where a farmer could just turn it on, he used to have to stop, open up the door, climb down, go back to the planter, do a bunch of knobs. So a couple years ago we had that moment where we were like this is the same time that we are at back then. It’s so ridiculous to be — if we have some things that are automatic, why not have it all automatic. I mean eventually everything’s going to be automatic. And so to today we just introduced the first range of products that can fully automate the planter row units so you could never leave the seat of your tractor cab and control every aspect of it

Mike Lessiter: So I just asked you about that time where you turned the corner. Were there other defining moments that kind of annealed you in the fire like you mentioned that post bankruptcy, after the planter project?

Joe Bassett: For me my career really started in 2003. Our top line revenue never went down between 2003 and 2014. We continued to grow the business linearly between 2003 and 2014.

Mike Lessiter: Impressive.

Joe Bassett: What was a defining moment for me was realizing that we are building an industry on the back of corn and you can’t take for granted that corn is worth something or that there’s a market for it, or that… I get to do what I do because there is net farm income, and because my customers have money to spend on technology and products like ours. And if the customers have no money then they can’t — you can be doing every single thing right, perfect strategy, perfect product plan, perfect everything, and if the customers have no money you can’t sell anything to them.

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And that’s what kind of happened when the market readjusted in the 2014 period. I was just like “whoa, we just had our first year over year decline,” and then we had another year of year decline in 2015, and at some point you actually start thinking, “well, I need to be running a smaller business or I need to have fewer people working there,” and the mistake I should have actually cut more sooner. In hindsight I wish I would have cut more sooner because it just — that would have been the wiser thing to do. It was almost vanity to think that we’ll just kind of engineer our way around it. And in practice that was pretty hard to do and just coming to realize that it is a cyclical business, sometimes things will go down and that doesn’t necessarily have to be an adjudication on yourself.

Mike Lessiter: Was that about the time that you took the wheel from Jim?

Joe Bassett: Yeah, I mean Jim had kind of thankfully — you know I hear from a lot of my customers, my father was a staple on the farm circuit forever, he was the large and everybody in the business knew him. He was notorious for showing up at farm shows late. We have this reputation that plagues us to this day of being the perpetually late company. But being perpetually late also I think is kind of cool because we’re constantly — it goes back to the fact that we’re doing this all with our own money. There’s not a big team of people, we’re living within our means. Everyone at Dawn Equipment — Dawn Equipment’s a company that people want to work at that want to have a big impact, that people that want to have big roles. And I want to let people that want to have big roles have big roles where they can do things, but we’re constantly running at that edge. You know my father was always that guy like the big character out there. He thankfully kind of let me — kind of moved aside I think. He’s going to do really well. I think there’s a lot of examples out there in the industry where you have that older generation not able to step aside.

Mike Lessiter: It’s very hard for most of them, right? He has to work probably to give you the room to run the company.

Joe Bassett: Well now he has a second kind of life. My father actually, he raises Herefords, he sells the beef at the farmer’s market, he’s actually teaching high school physics. He has this complete second life that he seems to be doing pretty well. I intend to pay him a lot of money in that he can…the sweat equity that he put in not letting the company go out of business. That starting point, having that name that means quality that customers identify with that started with some customers, that was a big starting point for me. I’m not going to gloss over the fact that having that starting point was a very valuable thing and it would have been difficult to get where I am as quickly otherwise.

Mike Lessiter: Where’d the Dawn come from?

Joe Bassett: So the Dawn of a new era in agriculture. My father would always joke that he would always run into the waitress named Dawn at the truck stop and we lose a lot of hats to it. We’re going to kind of freshen up our brand a little bit in the near future. I’m really proud of being in business for 25 years and I hope that staying an independent company being in business for 25 more years is actually going to — it’s going to be a technical challenge because what it’s going to require doing is every implement that is going to become a smart implement. Like every single thing is going to become, as automation increases, something that has some digital component to it. And what the industry doesn’t have right now is a clear pathway forward, a clear framework where independent 3rd party digital things will interface with other independent 3rd party digital things.

If independent or another company like — I was at Info Ag and I was talking with the guys from Verus, from Soil Optics, these other sensor companies. Well, look at our new planter products that you could be changing the depth of the planter on the go, you could be reconfiguring a number of different things about the planter where you’re on the go. Is there going to be an open accepted framework where independent products can interface with other independent products? I think we are actually going to have to innovate in that way. And some of the choices we’re going to make in the next year I think are going to be towards the direction that we decide to go with the Reflex product line — this is my prediction, if you file this video away and look at it 15 years from now, we’re going to be the bellwether of what becomes the open data standardization in the American farm equipment business. Or what is the future of Isobus, or what becomes a new type of open data exchange systems because who do we — we now will make a product where you could be planting and you could have 4 row by row independent data layers. Well they need to go somewhere. They need to go to — they only have value if the end user can look at them, juxtaposed with every other thing he’s doing on his farm. The value you get from data is that every single thing you do will be juxtaposed on top of it and then, amongst other things, but how do you do that, how do you do it in a way that does right by farmers, too? And I think that this is we’re literally at another inflection point, like I think Dawn came about at an inflection point in farming in the early 90s, and we’re going to be right there at another inflection point here as we kind of move into the robotic age of farming.

Mike Lessiter: Interesting. Why is it important for American agriculture to have independent suppliers like yourself?

Joe Bassett: Oh, because we just drive the pace of innovation so much faster. One of the things that I always intend to do, no matter how big the company gets, is I’m always going to be taking sales calls. I am always going to be looking at the internet. I believe that as an executive you can’t get too far away from the customers. We just have to just be, I don’t know, how could we not have any competition? I mean it’s the role of the independents to provide — that’s where so much of the unique innovation is coming from.

Like we were talking about before, what I think is at risk in this market is not that you won’t have small startup companies in agriculture, I feel that basically the industry will become bifurcated into simply large companies and then very, very small companies. And that what we will be losing is the mid-market. That is actually a technical problem, that is an electronic problem. How do companies, short line companies, make products that interface with other shortline products and OEM products. The next steps that happen in the industry are going to really determine what happens there.

Mike Lessiter: Sounds like you’re going to be in a position to drive that conversation.

Joe Bassett: I hope so. I want to keep doing it. I mean I really enjoy what I do. It’s a drag running a business. I mean anybody that runs a business, we’re about 50 people right now, it’s not always fun and games. What could be better than doing this, making stuff?

What I need to get better at is convincing a younger generation, and it’s crazy that I’m already becoming cognizant of a younger generation, but guys come up in their 20s, you know, we need to get better — I think as shortline and smaller companies, we need to get better at attracting young talent, retaining young talent, and bringing people up. Identifying people that are — if you want to be engineer one of 400 at a big company, you're not going to be fit for my company. But I talk to a lot of guys and they say why do people end up at like just kind of in the grind at the big companies is because they’re the ones out doing the recruiting. We need to get better at recruiting, we need to get better at identifying talent, retaining talent, recruiting and bringing people in and finding people. Because it really is a joy, having big impact is a joy.

Mike Lessiter: It’s a privilege.

Joe Bassett: And what I hate seeing is having younger people in their 20s leave my company to go to a bigger company, knowing full well that they might turn around 10 years, 15 years later to realize what a joy it is to have that kind of impact where you can sit down, design and then talk to the customer, recognize the need for the product, design something that fulfills that customer’s need, make a prototype, test it, sell it. The whole thing. That that has real value. That I feel like is something that I wish we could get through to people better. That’s going to be a struggle.

I recently decided we’ve had some kind of turnover recently and that really profoundly affected me. Lost a couple of team members that I was like, “why are you leaving the company?” Sometimes it’s about money, sometimes it’s about other things. The one thing I’ve realized is that what I have to do about our company, I’ve got to put you into the middle class at least. What does it take, if you want to buy a house in America today, have a family, get married, do all this stuff, what does it take to put you in the middle class? You know what, it’s a lot more and what we need to do is think of like we need to start from there. If I’m going to keep you and you’re going to enjoy being on this team, work is great, but if it’s not working for you as your total life picture, your work life balance, you’re not going to be happy at work. And so what I have to start from is how do I create roles that are big enough roles in the company that I can pay you enough to get you into the middle class, where you can actually have that life and have some ability to move yourself forward.

And then I’m starting from there, this is my new thing. Not just like — I don’t want like — I want a smaller group of people and every person needs to have a big enough universe inside of their work where they can generate the return on investment that’s required to put them into that life. If I can’t give you a big enough universe to pay you to do that, then that’s a mistake, that’s not a role, because that’s the only way that I’m really going to retain and build people and have career employees. Younger employees coming in, those team members — you know you read a lot in the business press about millennials and work and job hopping. Like this constant like difficulty retaining millennial talent and this constant job hopping around vs even team members I have that are 30-something, 40-something team members where…I think millennials actually get a bad rap about not being loyal to a company. I think companies also need to think about work in a way where you are thinking about careers instead of jobs.

And that was a mistake I made also— and that was a turning point for me, realizing that I need to actually manage people and…the little things, too. I hear all the time. My father didn’t actually — he wasn’t what you would call in any way a great manager of people I think, but guys loved how he would always bring in donuts and it costs like no money, and you’d be surprised how much I hear about like things like donuts, and I have to constantly think to myself I need to think about the little things, I need to think about the little stuff that really matters a lot to them.

Mike Lessiter: That’s interesting because I’ve known Jim for 10, 12 years, very tough, but it takes time to do a small gesture like that to keep the people engaged.

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Joe Bassett: That’s what I need to do. The thing about the agricultural industry is it’s not a big world. The world of planters is not a big world and I really think that reputation is everything. A reputation will stick you for a long time, and so it is kind of like a family. And I’m increasingly as I’m getting older becoming cognizant. Like you guys are kind of like the standard bearers for our little market segment that it is our little — it has a disproportionate significance. And the things that we’re doing with cover crops and other stuff.

I was tweeting recently about how much credit other people like Elon Musk get for like electric cars and all this other stuff, and I was hypothesizing that the change that we will bring in cover crops along with some of the other just thought leaders and innovators and the farmers and all of the people that have started, that is a broad sweeping social change that will probably take more carbon dioxide out of the air and put the carbon back in the ground than anything else. And it will all happen just kind of silently over a 10 or 15 year period without anybody realizing it’s even happening, without any kind of big…it’s really — I think that it’s not what we’re doing can actually have great social significance and great impact on the climate and the world. And I am just so happy.

The one thing I could probably close on is how important there is like a little sliver of the farming population that’s like 5% of those early adopters, those early adopter farmers are the ones that have let me do what I do. That guy who — and there’s some of them that are — I mean that will take a chance. If we did not have that small group of like early adopting innovator farmers that are willing to take a chance on products, companies like us couldn’t exist. Because the center of the bell curve is always waiting for what their neighbor does. It’s a super socially bias world. And the fact that there is that little group of farmers that are the kind of against the grain farmers. They are the ones that have actually allowed us to develop because they’ll actually take a chance on you. And so I’m really grateful to them more than anything.

You know like when my father — I remember when we moved into our facility and we installed this system, Kinsey was up and coming and I mentioned — and Jon Kinzenbaw came by to visit at one point and I already talked about how Al Meyer was kind of in that same group and you have like companies and there’s kind of like a whole kind of group of peers that are people that were the founders of companies at that time. I wonder who my peers are going to be when I’m 50 or 60.

Mike Lessiter: You’re 37?

Joe Bassett: Uh-huh.

Mike Lessiter: So you’re well below the average. There’s going to be people going out before some of your peers are coming in. You’ll be the generation that had…

Joe Bassett: I want to get into bigger projects, too. I want to actually — how much more can we do with the true V planter row unit and I mean how much more — I just, you look at the world and I’m just like man, there’s going to be some crazy change with… you know what really scares me? Perennial corn. Like you ever think like how much — in technology people always talk about like it’s not like the competitor that gets you, it’s like the stuff that comes out of left field that you would never think. It’s like what if you just never plant corn anymore?

Mike Lessiter: It’s a grass, right?

Joe Bassett: It is, it’s a grass, like why do we plant it all the time? There’s got to be a solution to that. Somebody would. I mean it would totally undo everything.

Mike Lessiter: Talk about Jim for a minute. Tell me about his background, how did get into all this?

Joe Bassett: Actually my father is from New Jersey. He talks about really wanting to leave New Jersey. He did not like it there and I think he left New Jersey when he went to the Air Force Academy, and then he went from the Air Force Academy to the University of Wisconsin. That’s when he got into mechanical engineering. And so he was in a lot of kind of equipment design areas and it wasn’t until, you know, when Dawn was founded Jim was not working in agriculture at that time, but he always had an interest in it.

Mike Lessiter: So that by itself is very unique is an entrepreneur, founder company, didn’t grow up on the farm, and brought an outside perspective to all this.

Joe Bassett: Yeah, I think that’s a good thing. I mean I didn’t grow up on a farm either. I grew up in an agricultural business. I mean it’s good in a way.

Mike Lessiter: It can be limiting, too, because of the paradigm you’re operating from, right?

Joe Bassett: Yeah, I don’t think it’s a great thing. I think it is tough to break, have really outside the box thinking when you’re actively in that world because you’re only thinking like kind of like very close I think I might say. So yeah, he does really like farming. He raises cows now, he likes it.

I personally have no interest in the animal agriculture. Like I’m interested in the technical problems that I deal with. I’m interested in — but I wouldn’t farm myself. I think it’s a great lifestyle. I see my customers. I think for some of them it looks really nice. You get to kind of call your own shots when you’re a farmer.

Mike Lessiter: Any anecdotes that you remember about the time that the company got started in the early years?

Joe Bassett: There were really some funny times. I just bought one of the Paradigm planters back to keep in my collection. It was one that I believe had been bought by Case right when the company was about to go through bankruptcy and I was able to acquire that back. I think that that’s a great one.

I remember going to the patent attorneys when we were litigating about the yield monitor and I think I must have been maybe 13 or 14 and going to Chicago and going up into this building and like having a couple yield monitors sitting on the table. And I remember like making some points about the 2 designs and that the patent attorneys actually took me seriously.

Mike Lessiter: As a 14-year-old.

Joe Bassett: That was a really significant memory for me. I used to build things, too, like build things in the factory all the time. I remember how just… I don’t know how, it’s crazy that it ended up this way, it could have gone so many other ways. When we first introduced the Gfx row cleaner and we went out to South Dakota and we ran it and it was kind of like everything was great. And this moment scarred me forever. You know it could run in the field, everything’s good, and you’re like you get in the car and we were in kind of central South Dakota and we got to about like Jackson, Minn., and your phone rings and like the arms had all — every single one starts breaking at exactly the same place, and that profoundly scarred me to this day where I have a fear when I’m like starting a new product, I have a fear of leaving a customer’s farm because it’s always when you leave, as soon as you leave something goes wrong.

Also when I was child at the early year of Dawn, I remember, and this was in the very early years how — there was this like Gladys Knight and the Pips album that they would always sing in the office and that we were in this tiny little office, this dingy little office, and then you’d go in and there would be like these kind of oversized guys singing Gladys Knight. In hindsight it was all fun and games.

What do you think? I mean how long have you been in the business?

Mike Lessiter: I came back in 2003, so I’ve been back here 14 years.

Joe Bassett: What did you do before that?

Mike Lessiter: I was working in metals engineering and running 2 magazines in the Chicago area so came back to — the family business moved family to Wisconsin at that point.

Joe Bassett: How did your dad get into this business?

Mike Lessiter: He said that milking cows made him want to be an ag journalist. So he got a dairy science degree and decided he was going to help people farm by communicating new methods and that kind of thing. So he got into the publication business pretty early on. Did some livestock, did a bunch of things, and then was hired to launch No-Till Farmer for another publisher in Milwaukee in ’72. So he’s been the only editor in chief of No-Till Farmer in 45 years now.

Joe Bassett: Is he retired?

Mike Lessiter: No, he works 3 ½ days a week. Very much loves to do what he does and empowered several of us to back of the place to run different divisions, but he does what he wants to do now, which is write stores. Comes in, takes pictures, he’s writing a book right now. In fact he probably needs to connect with your dad on the book project.

Joe Bassett: Should call him, he has time.