By Abra Bennett
Writer in Residence, Walla Walla Community College
2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the John Deere tractor, and the 24th anniversary of WWCC’s John Deere Agricultural Technology program. That’s where students, in the words of Andy Winnett, Director of John Deere Agricultural Programs at WWCC, and a 1977 graduate of the college, “work on things that are green.”
If green is your thing you can get teeny-tiny baby onesies in an instantly- recognizable green and yellow color scheme. Also green and yellow tricycles, sheets, pajamas, curtains, dog leashes, and plaques that say “Nothing Runs Like a Deere.”
“John Deere has a cult following,” said Winnett. “I know of an awesome young technician whose mother taught him to read using John Deere brochures.”
The John Deere company has been in business since 1837. In 1918 Deere launched its first tractor, the Waterloo Boy. It was green and yellow even then, with just a touch of red.
The Waterloo Boy was the two-cylinder, single-speed, four-wheel forerunner of today’s $300,000, 620 horsepower, GPS-guided, technology-laden behemoths.
In 1994, when WWCC students began working on John Deere equipment, tractors were simpler. “We have all had to grow with the increasingly sophisticated equipment,” said Winnett, who has taught in the program since 1995. “This program is not for everybody, but it’s great for students that really like fixing things.”
The students’ education follows an unusual model, he explained. All students must be sponsored by a John Deere dealership. For students from Washington that means one of the three dealership groups in the state: Papé, RDO, or Washington Tractor. Students from out of state are sponsored by their home dealerships. All students are expected to work in these dealerships after graduation.
The two-year program has the students on campus for four quarters, interspersed with three quarters spent back home working in their dealership. In both places they learn about, and work on, highly advanced technology. Today’s John Deere tractors have 30-40 computers onboard, most of which talk to each other, as well as having the ability to talk directly to dealerships via cloud computing.
Things were different when Dick Muhlbeier graduated from the program in 1999. Born and raised on an irrigated seed crop and asparagus farm outside Basin City, WA, he started his career at the Tri-Tech Skills Center in Kennewick. Enrolled in the diesel mechanics program half the day, he attended Connell High School the other half.
Less than a month after graduating he registered for WWCC’s JD Tech program, sponsored by the RDO dealership in Pasco. He was hired on as an RDO technician as soon as he obtained his two-year degree. “I started in the shop but got into a service truck very quickly,” he recalled. “I did that for seven years, and then precision ag really started taking a hold in this area.”
“I moved into precision ag and did that for another six years, as a product specialist,” he continued. “And now as a product specialist supervisor for the Northwest I have six product specialists and one agronomist working for me.”
Kory Glover is a first-year JD Tech student, sponsored by Washington Tractor, who grew up on his family’s hay and forage farm in Granite Falls, WA. “My family is pretty die-hard green and yellow fans,” he said. “It’s the brand I’m used to, and I’m going to be ruled by it the rest of my life.”
“John Deere has built a reputation as an all-American company with a rich culture,” Glover added. “It appeals to rural agricultural people who have a different mindset, our own way of thinking about things. We’re community-minded, and want to do the job right the first time.”
Cullen Coulston, an instructor in the JD Tech program, was himself in the first group of JD Tech graduates, and has worked at WWCC since 2001. He’s right on top of the latest advances in technology.
“The tractors and combines are self-driving,” Coulston explained. “They measure things like yield and moisture, then map that to different parts of the field. They build prescription maps for seeding, fertilizers, and sprays, using a more precise signal from the same GPS we use on our phones.”
“Today’s tractors can darn near call you on your cellphone to tell you there’s a problem,” he said, only half joking. “I believe that the students that are here now will work on fully autonomous tractors, with no cab for a driver, before the end of their careers.”
“The newer tractors with cellular-based modems are streaming the data almost instantaneously as they go through the fields,” added Muhlbeier. “Tillage, as-applied planting, as-applied spray maps, speed maps, elevation maps, fuel consumption and efficiency, harvest parameters, all that data is uploaded to the cloud by the tractor. Our job is to help the grower make sense of all that information.”
But the JD Tech program is not only about the technology. Les Echtenkamp began teaching in the program in 1996, and will retire at the end of this year. “For me, the highlights of my career here are the successes of the students,” he said. “We work with them on-on-one, even after hours, to help them succeed, in life and as technicians.”
Muhlbeier remains enthusiastic about the program. “We have so much success with WWCC grads because the whole program relates directly to what we do, and they hit the ground running,” he said. “The faculty is very flexible and they’ll do anything to make the quality of their graduates better.”
Kory Glover agrees, saying that the knowledge of the WWCC instructors surprised him. “They’re very up-to-date, and they’re walking encyclopedias. The program is really mission-oriented, and what we’re doing is tangible. We know that in two years when we graduate we’ll have excellent jobs with a lot of opportunity.”