Family tradition: TJ Kounkel is a third-generation trucker with award-winning Peterbilt

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TJ and his family
TJ Kounkel, third from left, entered his Peterbilt in the 2019 No Coast Large Cars Truck Show in Britt, Iowa. He is shown here with his dad, Chad Kounkel, left; his cousin, Jackson Kounkel, second from left; and his grandfather, Jack Kounkel, right. His truck earned trophies for first place Limited Mileage, Best of Show Tractor/Trailer and People’s Choice Award. (Courtesy: TJ Kounkel)

MERRILL, Iowa — Farming and trucking are two professions that often run in families. TJ Kounkel’s family has a tradition of both.

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In addition to farming 2,000 acres of corn and soybeans in northwest Iowa, his family operates a livestock-hauling business. Driving farm equipment and even trucks on the farm were just part of growing up for Kounkel.

“I started driving at 18, driving intrastate. I know every road in Iowa,” he told The Trucker, adding that talking about himself isn’t easy for him.

“I’m kind of boring,” he said. “When I’m not trucking, I stay busy with the farm. There’s always something to do.”

On the other hand, talking about his truck isn’t a problem at all. Kounkel drives a 2018 Peterbilt 389 with a Caterpillar C-15 Acert engine and an 18-speed transmission.

“We took the engine down to the bare block, and everything was balanced and blueprinted going back together,” he said. “We’re running CAT compound turbos pushing around 700 hp.”

The truck was put together in the family shop, at the farm.

“All of the work was done in our shop; we build all of our own gliders,” he explained. “Only some of the work, like the upholstery and the major engine work, was hired out.”

The family currently runs 14 trucks, all gliders. Kounkel’s truck was ordered as a glider in 2017, with most of the assembly taking place on the farm.

“The truck was delivered to our shop in the fall of 2017 and put in storage until we started building it the first part of 2019,” he said. “It took about six months from start to finish just in time for the Great American Truck Show (GATS) in Dallas.”

Improvements made to the truck include custom seats, stereo and shag carpeting.

“The entire interior was taken out so Dynamat sound-dampening material could be put down to keep all the sound out of the cab,” he explained.

Kounkel’s truck took Best of Show in the Limited Mileage category at GATS last year and has won awards at local shows.

“The best part of showing trucks is the show itself — the people you get to meet and the trucks you get to see,” he said.

Kounkel hauls cattle and hogs in a 2020 Wilson Silverstar Livestock trailer, mostly to processing centers. Business is slow in the current environment.

“Everybody is locked down on us, so it’s pretty slow,” he said. “Some of the processing plants have cut back on how many they’ll take, and some have closed down entirely. We’re not taking nearly the hogs and cattle.”

When he isn’t farming or working on trucks, Kounkel is planning for the future. Only 22 years old, he said he plans to stay in northwest Iowa.

“I bought 100 acres and a house next to our farm,” he explained. “I’m pretty blessed. I have a little shop, but I haven’t done anything with it yet. We work on gliders at the farm.”

The closest “big” city to the Kounkel farm is Sioux City, Iowa, population 83,000. The countryside is an endless sea of corn and soybeans. “Yep, it’s a lot of corn,” he said.

When he’s traveling, his girlfriend sometimes goes along. “She likes to ride with me, but there’s a lot of sleeping,” he quipped.

With four years of driving, the family farm and now, a home and his own acreage, TJ Kounkel represents the third generation in both businesses. He has a solid plan laid out for his future, one that is bound to include more awfully nice trucks.

bright purple truck
TJ Kounkel drives a 2018 Peterbilt 389 with a Caterpillar C-15 Acert engine and an 18-speed transmission. He did the majority of the work to turn this rig into a show truck at the shop on his family’s farm. (Courtesy: TJ Kounkel)

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