The colors of green and yellow are unmistakable. You can see
them in Afghanistan, Guatemala, China, Nigeria and even Central Park. They
represent the best values of our country - sturdiness, trust, innovation. Most
importantly, the green and yellow of John Deere may also just represent one of
humankind's best chances for the future.
The story of John Deere parallels the story of our young
country. In the early decades of the 19th century, American expansion across
our continent had arrived in the Midwest. The prairie soil, rich, deep and
thick, posed real problems for farmers using cast-iron plows designed for the
light sandy soil of New England. Plowing these vast new prairies was an
extraordinarily slow and labor-intensive job, so difficult that many early
farmers considered returning home.
John Deere was an astute man. After some careful study, he
became convinced that a plow with a highly polished and properly shaped
moldboard and share would work well in this new soil. And like so many
inventors to come, in 1837 Deere co-opted technology intended for other
applications (steel from a broken saw blade) to produce a plow that would make
Midwestern farms the breadbasket of the world.
Since its humble beginnings more than 173
years ago, John Deere has built its success by investing in research. The numbers of innovations that have come about by Deere
engineers is astounding - and today farmers all over the world are improving the
productivity of the land by employing GPS-guided tractors that are in many ways
far more advanced than our aging space shuttles.
We all need companies like John Deere more than ever today.
Not just for the jobs they provide, but for the vision to take on the immensely
challenging problems that loom on the horizon. When Deere started his company
to support farmers, the world population had just exceeded one billion. Today,
our population is 6.8 billion. As we look forward to our children's world, the
UN estimates that there will be approximately 9.2 billion humans by the year
We are already struggling to feed our
world today, and the task is going to be significantly more difficult when we
add another two and half billion mouths. New available land will be extremely
limited, water will likely become an even more politicized resource, and sci-fi
approaches like vertical farming still have a long way to go. So where are we
going to find another three trillion meals every year using an existing
resource base that is already stretched?
Thankfully, the current leaders of John Deere are not waiting
for the crisis to hit before taking this problem seriously. Maybe that's just
the farmers approach that seems so "last century" and yet quietly still helps
puts food on the world's table day after day. Led by Dave Everitt, president of
Deere's Agriculture and Turf Div., this very talented team is scouring the
globe to find the innovations needed for a problem still decades away.
We are rightfully excited and proud of new companies that
provide remarkable solutions to challenging problems, but let's also give
thanks that there are great companies built on centuries of innovation that
have the strength, wisdom and resources to take on the biggest problems of our
times. I hope that 173 years from now we can count on Facebook and Google to
provide answers to problems yet unimagined. Until then, we will rely on our
trusty John Deere.
Geoffrey C. Orsak is Dean of the SMU Lyle School
of Engineering. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.