Tis the season when writers at all publications seem to feel an irresistible urge to summarize the year that was. I’m not immune to that force, but this year I have something better to tell you about. I was actually visited three times by ghosts who represent farm machinery, past, present and future.
Last night I was awoken at 1:00 am by the unmistakable sound of a two-cylinder John Deere tractor. I looked out to see that it was being driven by John Deere, himself. I went outside and we had a great chat as the tractor idled a few steps away. I reminded him that idling machinery just wasted fuel, but he pointed out that his early green tractors burned low-cost distillate fuels, a fact his company prominently displayed on advertising back in the day. Innovation that leads to efficiency is the key to successful equipment design, he said.
Innovation in farm machinery began modestly enough, with simple things like his redesigned plow share, he went on to explain. But he shook his head as he pointed out there has always been resistance to new technology. He chuckled about the fact that when executives in his own company purchased the Waterloo Boy tractor company a few years after the turn of the 20th century, they sent a letter to JD dealers telling them not to worry, because they understood horse-drawn implements would always be the mainstay of agriculture. This gas tractor thing was just a fad.
There is a lesson in there somewhere, John said as he drove away, explaining another machinery ghost would appear at 2:00 am to tell me more.
In fact, not one but two ghosts showed up at that time, Henry Ford and Harry Ferguson. Harry was driving a small Ferguson tractor as Henry rode along, standing on the hitch and leaning over a fender from behind.
It was cooperation, they said, that allowed them to take gas tractor technology, blend it with innovative three-point hitch hydraulic design and wrap it in a compact, affordable machine that enabled tens of thousands of farmers to make the leap to mechanization.
I detected a bit of coolness between them. That didn’t surprise me. The two men who together created an innovative tractor eventually dissolved their handshake agreement and went their own ways as competitors. They created independent, incredibly successful farm machinery brands.
They said it was the kind of corporate merger and entrepreneurial spirit they represented early in the last century which led to the formation of today’s farm machinery brands. Modern companies are the culmination of business successes, failures, mergers and takeovers. And the technology all their equipment relies on is the result of the collective efforts of a great many engineers and visionaries.
There was much more to say about machinery Harry said, but they really had to go. I’d find out more about the future of it when the next ghost visited me at 3:00, Henry said. They bickered a bit about who would drive, then they left.
Sure enough, at 3:00 I heard the sound of metal wheels and horses hooves on the driveway outside. Odd, I thought. Wasn’t this guy going to be the ghost of future farm machinery?
With the moonlight reflecting off the snow, I could see J.I. Case standing beside a team of horses and a Case threshing machine. As I walked over, J.I. (Jerome) approached giving me a firm handshake and looking me squarely in the eye as he introduced himself and pointed out the very dated features of his machine. I could tell he was pretty proud of it, nonetheless.
I asked what his farmer customers originally expected when they bought one of these machines. “They expect it to do what I claim it’ll do,” he said plainly. “And if a machine won’t, I’ll make things right.”
He reminded me of a famous incident in which he spent a day at a customer’s farm trying to get one of his company’s threshing machines to perform properly. But after much effort, it still wouldn’t work. He then asked the farmer for some kerosene, which was provided. J.I. then doused the machine with it and set it alight. “I’ll send you out another one tomorrow,” he told the farmer.
The future of farm machinery sales would, in a way, depend on the past, he explained. If companies want to keep farmers coming back, it is really honesty, integrity and a willingness to service their machines in a way that ensures they live up to the promises of their marketing that will chart the course of future brand successes, he said confidently.
Then he led the team away, pulling the threshing machine behind them.
In the morning, I woke up on the sofa. Harry, my dog (no relation to Ferguson), was at the other end, and he was hogging all of the blanket that my wife apparently put over us sometime during the night.
On the coffee table was my empty rum and eggnog glass. I gotta stop watching late, late Christmas movies while partaking of liquid cheer.