A year and a half ago I entered a contest that John Deere was having. We were to write an essay on how we would help our community if we had a new Deere skid steer loader. I said I would try to help Habitat for Humanity in Putnam County. I was selected as one of three finalists and I was told that if I wanted to pursue the contest any further I would have to agree to travel to Moline, Illinois, where the winner would be announced.
As a perk, I could tour any of the factories in the area and Deere would take care of travel expenses and hotel accommodations. What “green blooded” farmer wouldn’t do that! I said yes and had the whole trip planned in a matter of seconds.
The Isle Casino Hotel in Bettendorf, Iowa, was where Deere booked our room. Our room was fit for President Trump; it was absolutely perfect! The Deere Company treated us like kings and queens throughout our stay.
Our first day of touring started at the combine factory in Moline. We were told there were three questions we couldn’t ask: 1. what number of combines are produced; 2. what the salaries of the workers were; and 3. what the future plans were. Ironically, all three questions were more or less answered by our tour guide in the next hour.
One half of the world’s grain is harvested by John Deere combines. The factories are UAW (United Automobile Workers) unionized, so obviously the wages are top notch. We were told that skilled welders are in highest demand and are the highest paid people. We learned that two years from now there will be a new generation of combines and that one area of the factory was already being converted to produce them and the whole factory will be completely shut down for several months to make final changes for the new machines.
The factory employs 1,400 workers, which is a much smaller number than in the 1970s when there were more than 4,000 workers. We also learned that never again would there be that large of a workforce because of increased automation in the factory and, because the combines produced now have much more capacity than previous ones, so not as many have to be produced to get the job of harvesting done.
We were told that the combine is one of the most complex machines that man makes. It has more parts than the space shuttle.
The most interesting part of the factory was the painting area. There were 13 dip tanks lined up in a row. Each was the size of a large in-ground swimming pool. Parts were dipped in each one by a chain suspended from an overhead trolley line. Some tanks contained cleaning and etching solutions, several were just rinse water and the final tank was water-based paint. Then the partially completed machines were spray painted by two robots. The next station had two humans in pressurized suits touching things up with spray guns.
Next, we traveled to Deere’s corporate headquarters for lunch in the atrium. The headquarters building is a composite of four buildings connected by overhead walkways. This building is a quarter mile long and houses more than 900 people. It is flat roofed, all steel and glass. It was designed by Eero Saarinen, who is best remembered as the architect for the St. Louis Arch. The building is an “over the top” architectural masterpiece.
Built in the early 1960s, it has won many design awards. The steel used is Cor-Ten. It has never been painted and will never be painted. Looking at file pictures it was first silver gray, then gradually rusted to a burnt orange, then to a cinnamon and is now a flat black. It sort of portrays the permanence of the company through changing times. Some farmers call it the “rusty glass palace.” The Cor-Ten steel has only superficial rust and will never corrode any further and it has an indefinite life span.
Inside, the hallways are graced with paintings of landscapes that have been collected from all over the world. The grounds are forested with a couple large ponds. The building is two-thirds of a mile from the main road and the driveway to the building curves around the ponds. The separate exit drive is on the other side of the ponds. There are only two signs identifying the property; both are startlingly low key and modest in size and are mounted at ground level. The area will always remain the same because John Deere owns several thousand acres there.
The next day we toured the skid steer factory in Davenport, Iowa. This factory also makes backhoes and forestry equipment. Although it has more than 1,000 employees, the skid steers were selling so well that there was an eight-month backlog on machine orders. The new machines are loaded with electro-hydraulic controls; many have air conditioning, heated seats and backup cameras. The tour was given by the person in charge of the skid steers and we lunched with the top executives of the plant.
Later that day we went to the John Deere Pavilion in downtown Moline. It has a constantly rotating display of old and new equipment that Deere has built. There are many videos to watch. Some are from 80 years ago showing the assembly lines. There is lots to learn here about the history of automated agriculture.
On our last day we went to the tractor factory in Waterloo, Iowa. No parts are made in this factory. It is strictly an assembly plant. Parts are trucked in from Deere’s foundry and from a multitude of supplying factories, some of which are even outside the USA. The factory only builds larger tractors and is the only factory in the world to assemble their three largest series of tractors. It was interesting that Deere chooses its suppliers not primarily for low cost but for the quality of the parts and the dependability of the supplier. We were also impressed with the attention to detail. Everything is checked by humans and computers double check and document everything. Only when the computer says OK does the tractor move down the line to the next station.
The ceiling of the cabs is an incredible maze of wires. Virtually all these tractors are set up for auto steer which explains the complexity of the wiring. We looked at the build sheets and customers are from all around the world — Romania, Russia, Australia, Canada, etc.
Next, we went to the tractor museum in downtown Waterloo. It is not to be missed. It is in the old tractor factory and has just been open for a couple years for use as a museum. There are lots of tractors and fun interactive displays.
If you are not interested in farm equipment Deere has a heavy construction equipment factory in Dubuque, Iowa. The company is always looking for new employees and once someone starts working for Deere they seldom leave; the corporate culture and benefits are that great. Employees and retired employees who served as tour guides couldn’t have been more helpful and informative, plus they all had a delightful sense of humor.
Versions of all the tours we went on are available at no cost, but reservations are required. Gold Key tours are generally reserved for those customers who are purchasing large equipment. See your local John Deere dealer to set up factory tours. The Pavilion and the Headquarters showroom lobby have no age limit and no reservations are required. Both are open 7 days a week (afternoons only on Sundays).
One final observation: We watched four introductory videos at various places we visited. There is one thing they all had in common. Deere says that the world’s population will double in the next 30 years. While that estimate is high compared to those I have heard from other sources, I trust Deere’s judgment on this. They know how advances in agriculture technology are going to change everything in the world.