Gators’ journey propels Deere to sustainable future

SILVIS – At first glance, the pair of mostly unpainted work series utility vehicles perched on a rise overlooking this week’s John Deere Classic seem rather nondescript.

But visitors to TPC at Deere Run who pause to learn more soon will discover these one-of-a-kind Sustainable Concept Gators – made from a collection of old bottles, fishing nets, recycled rubber, coconut shells, soybeans and the like – are a window into the future.

This side view of the Sustainable Concept Gator unveiled at the John Deere Classic offers hints of the renewable and bio-based materials used in creating the one-off prototypes. CREDIT KENDA BURROWS

Creative employees at John Deere, the world’s largest supplier of agricultural turf equipment, and their counterparts at Ford Motor Co. were given a joint assignment in 2018 by their employers on the project to explore the future of sustainable materials innovation.

Their collaborative, creative efforts resulted not only in the concept Gators bearing the Deere brand and unveiled at this week’s JDC, but in furthering the Moline-based Deere & Co.’s commitment to using as many renewable, recyclable and sustainable materials as possible in its big (and small) green machines.

For designers like Andrew Greenlee, Deere’s senior staff engineer for sustainable solutions, finding ways to use sustainable and recyclable products is a passion. 

 Andrew Greenlee
Andrew Greenlee

Mr. Greenlee, who grew up in farm country just outside of Rockford, Illinois, told the QCBJ, he was eager to exercise the freedom that Deere gave the Gator team to “brainstorm to come up with innovative ideas to make this concept vehicle.”

Mr. Greenlee was one of six Deere employees who worked with Ford Motor Co.’s Sustainable Materials Team to find ways to take waste streams, like plastic bottles, and bio-based materials and byproducts and turn them into viable vehicle components. 

Specifically the two teams of engineers focused on using:

  • Renewable and bio-based materials and byproducts.
  • Recycled content. 
  • Recyclable content.

The teams then went to Deere and Ford’s networks of suppliers who, Deere & Co. said, “went above and beyond to support the project, to build a prototype created with renewable, recycled, and recyclable materials including soybeans, flax fiber, sugar cane, hemp fiber, bottles, and even fishing nets.”

Some of those products came from far-flung places. The plastic fishing nets, for example, were pulled by a supplier from the Indian Ocean. Other items came from much closer to home such as soybeans and plastic bottles – some of which were fished from the Mississippi River by Living Lands & Waters.

How did the well-known environmental organization founded by Quad Cities native Chad Pregracke get involved in the Gator prototype project?

Chad Pregracke
Chad Pregracke

John Deere has been a long-time supporter of Living Lands and Waters and our mission, they have helped our organization in numerous ways over the years and for that we are fortunate,” Mr. Pregracke told the QCBJ.

“John Deere came up with this idea and contacted us,” he added. “The materials were collected in a river cleanup with help from lots of different people coming together for a common cause: to ensure we have cleaner rivers and clean oceans. The Gator is something tangible, and a usable product made out of recycled plastic; it is a win-win for everyone!”

The ”finished” products, which sport John Deere Green paint on only part of their exterior and are on display at the PGA event, give viewers a stripped down look at how designers used recycled and sustainable materials in the one-off prototypes. (Learn more about the individual sustainable parts on the Deere concept Gators here.)

Visitors who covet one of these vehicles should be aware, however, that the Sustainable Concept Gator isn’t destined for the market. The prototypes, instead, are extremely valuable to sustainable innovation efforts, Jill Sanchez, John Deere director of sustainability, said in a Deere news release.

“The Sustainable Concept Gator has provided us with key learnings,” she said. “It shows how innovative thinking and innovative partnerships provide invaluable insight into how we can apply sustainable material use in the future.”

Mr. Greenlee added, “Getting the opportunity to look at things that are out in the future and focus on what we need to develop to add value to our customers while reducing our environmental footprint was a great experience.”

The project was not without its challenges, however.

“It was difficult because we had to work within our current framework of production tooling, we weren’t going to invest in new tooling for a product that won’t go to market, but we did everything we could to find sustainable materials that were suitable replacements,” Keith Shanter, senior materials engineer, said in the Deere release.

And even if the prototype Gators are not a short-term production solution, the materials pave the way for sustainable solutions, including one already in production, he said. “One component from this project that’s in Gators produced today is a defrost louver made out of recycled tires.” 

The partnership between the two companies made sense, Mr. Greenlee said.

“Ford is a long-time leader in sustainable materials and has been integrating sustainable parts into their vehicles for decades – even back to Henry Ford experimenting with soybean oil in the 1930s,” he said.

In addition, he told the QCBJ, for more than 20 years Deere has been committed to using sustainable and bio-based products, including those produced by its agricultural customers, in its fleet of vehicles.

Importantly, too, Deere said, the sustainable concept gator also demonstrates the company’s commitment to achieving its Leap Ambitions product circularity goals by 2030. “This partnership highlights how two global corporations can come together and inspire its engineers to think differently to develop sustainable solutions that also make sense for their businesses,” Deere said.

The global equipment maker’s 2030 circularity goals are:

  • Achieve 95% recyclable product content.
  • Ensure 65% of product content is sustainable material.
  • Grow 50% in remanufacturing revenue.

Learn more about the company’s sustainability strategy at

Get the free QCBJ email newsletter

Stay up-to-date with the people, companies and issues that impact business in the  Quad Cities area.