John Deere's Revolution


I wonder what would have happened if nobody had ever figured out how to run a plow through the sticky clay soil of the Great Plains. We will never know because John Deere of Vermont (and later Illinois) did figure it out. Deere had to leave Vermont and his family because his blacksmith shop was failing and he needed to repay his creditors. He went to Illinois, discovered that the farmers had no effective tools to till the soil and, in 1837, invented the self-scouring steel plow to replace the wood and cast iron variety than in common use.

Nearly two centuries later, the company he founded continues to make agricultural equipment in Moline, Illinois and elsewhere around the world. Today, you can tour the factory in a serpent of linked golf carts, as a retired Deere employee tells you how combines are made.

Not surprisingly, combines are way bigger and more complicated than the self-scouring steel plow of 1837. If you go to the factory for a tour, don’t try to park in the front row even if you are the only one touring the plant at 8:00 in the morning. The front row is reserved for customers coming to see their own combines being built because, as the company likes to say, it has a “history of dedication to those linked to the land.”

Combines are huge, and the complexities of logistics and manufacturing are far too much for me, but I loved watching the giant machines getting dipped into great vats of green paint to give them their characteristic appearance.

If a small child wanted to climb the stairs to see the cab (and what small child wouldn’t?) a helicopter parent would hold the kid’s hand as he scampered up. When a combine is being shipped, the wheels have to be removed and stacked behind it on the flatbed truck because a combine is nearly the width of two highway lanes.

The technological evolution of the company from plows to combines is obvious and there is also something more subtle and perhaps far-reaching.

The self-scouring steel plow contributed to making the Midwest a viable place to settle in the mid-1800s. The modern combine contributes to making the Midwest a major exporter of agricultural products to consumers throughout the world.

But here is the subtlety: the self-scouring steel plow made it possible for more people to find their livelihood in the Midwest, while the combine makes it possible for fewer people to be needed.

The John Deere exhibition hall in Moline also provided a look into the future.