This week I took a group of farmers, landowners, and
listeners on the second Follow the Corn bus trip. We went to New Orleans to see
Zen Noh’s export terminal in August of 2012. This time was a bit less
ambitious. Just a quick trip to see John Deere in Illinois and Iowa.
We loaded our appropriately colored green and yellow Cavallo
motor coach about 3:30pm Monday afternoon. Our first stop was at one of my
favorite haunts in Peoria, Avanti’s Italian Ristorante. It is simple,
affordable cuisine and every one agreed that it hit the spot.
If you go there be sure to order a Gondola to
take home. You’ll thank me later.
Peoria is about half way between Champaign and the Quad
Cities. It was an easy ride to our hotel across from the John Deere Pavilion.
We checked in, and I’m certain everyone had fun playing with the ‘Sleep Number’
beds at the Radisson. It’s the little things that make a trip memorable. I try
to stack those up when planning the Follow the Corn events.
Our first John Deere plant stop was Harvester Works. This is
where Deere makes combines. We arrived at 7:40am for our 8am tour. It gave us
all plenty of time for an extra cup of coffee and to play on the S Series
combine in the plant lobby. It’s kind of a farm kids dream! I got to play on a
combine and look at the cool art work on the walls. Art work, by the way, is a
theme at Deere. It is everywhere and in everything. I read the John Deere Way,
the book – actually I listened to it using Audible - earlier this year and
Deere believes equipment should be beautiful, themselves pieces of art. It is
part of the John Deere culture.
There is something of an orchestrated dance that happens on
John Deere’s manufacturing floors to bring their equipment to life.
Here’s a fun little fact we learned at Harvester Works. The
average life of a John Deere combine is about 17 years. Over that time it will
have five owners. One of our tour guides happened to help design John Deere’s
paint system. It is extraordinary and cost tens of millions of dollars to
build. He was a humble man, and a simple dedicated John Deere employee who came
up with a good idea to make John Deere green more durable in the field. He,
like every John Deere employee we met, was pulling towards a simple goal of
making a quality product for farmers to use. They were very proud of their
equipment, but mostly concerned about how it would stand up for their farmers.
Earlier, I told you it was the little things that make a
trip memorable. We had some discussion during the planning process about the
noon meal on Tuesday. John Deere would provide one for a fee at the
headquarters. It wasn’t cheap, but I was pretty sure it would be quote “one of
those memory builders”. In fact that was the case.
We dined at Deere. It was white tablecloth cuisine served
to us as we sat on fifty-year-old teak wood chairs designed especially for the
headquarters building at its construction.
The John Deere headquarters were built to attract talent
from around the planet. It isn’t located in New York because the company
believes it is tied to the land. It is rugged, yet exquisite. The curator of
the vast art collection housed at John Deere headquarters rotates it from floor
to floor so that over time all the 1300 employees working on the campus
can view the entire collection. The headquarters is an architectural
masterpiece perfectly fitted into a rolling landscape of wood and water and
I was feeling pretty satisfied with myself and the Follow
the Corn – John Deere tour after dinner. We were on time and things had gone
very well. I’d even brought a few homemade cookies along for the ride. These
were scrumptious and made by mom, that’s what I’ve always called my wife’s
mother. The riders loved them. Things were good, but they were about to get
Our third tour Tuesday was at John Deere Seeding Group. This
is where Deere makes planters in the Quad Cities. It was a late edition added
last Thursday. A University of Illinois alum at Deere arranged it so we could
see the new ExactEmerge planter, or at least one of the units.
We arrived to find two very happy tour guides. They stayed
just for us. They weren’t supposed to be there. This was my first happy
surprise. I didn’t expect a tour of the planter manufacturing floor. More on it
in a moment. We had come, however, to the Seeding Group to see Deere’s new 10
mile per hour planter. They brought in a unit, took it a part, let us handle
it, showed us how it worked, and then took our questions. The farmers challenged
them, pushed them, and listened to them explain why the new way to plant corn
and other crops would work not only faster, but more accurately. I think we
all, mostly, believed them.
The men and women working the floor at the Seeding Group
were on a dead run to make planters. Our tour guide, he was named Loren, asked
a couple of times if we were in a hurry. “No”, came our answer. So, he took
time to walk us through the plant. We stopped and gaped at the laser used to
cut parts from sheets of metal. These came out of the machine smooth and flat.
Some of them were handed off to men and women to be bent and pressed. Buck,
though he was busy, stopped – and as he did somebody stepped up to his machine
– to tell us how much he liked bending parts. He'd been doing it for 17 years. I
think he told us his father and grandfather had done it, too. He was proud of
Deere and glad to meet farmers that very well might be using a planter he
helped to build.
Even the guys who ran red, were thinking about running green
when we left the Seeding Group. We loaded the bus and headed for Waterloo,
Frankly, the Tractor Cab Assembly Operations tour seemed a
little rushed. I think this is because we were – at least at first – just
another group of the some 20,000 that come through the plant annually. A little
nudge and a request to have some one-on-one time changed the tempo. Deere
provided our little entourage with four folks “in-the-know”. They were all
fairly young and it was fun to watch the farmers give them a lesson on John
Deere failures, successes, and even hopes. This is the plant were I was finally
convinced John Deere actually builds each piece of machinery for an individual
farmer. It is a line often repeated by John Deere employees. There are more
than 8000 different versions of a single line of the R Series tractors. It is
possible to build the tractor all year, and not build the same tractor twice.
It’s a small thing, but rather nice to know when you spend so much money that
no one else is likely to have exactly the same tractor.
Our last stop, before heading home, was in Coralville for
lunch. The Iowa River Power Restaurant opens to the largest dam in the state.
The owners converted a former electrical power generation plant into a fascinating
place to eat. The glass façade opens to the Iowa River and inside there are 30
ton lifts and the iron to support them towering above the dining room. The food
is good, too. We arrived home at 4:30pm just as advertised on the itinerary.
Afterwards, I almost called the cemetery in Logan County to
sell my plots.