“Tractor Wars” looks at the battle to change farming

The world of farming changed forever after a 20-year business battle to develop and introduce the tractor.

Author Neil Dahlstrom examines that period – from 1908-1928 – in his new book “Tractor Wars: John Deere, Henry Ford, International Harvester, and the Birth of Modern Agriculture.”

In the book, Mr. Dahlstrom – a researcher, historian and writer – looks at how the tractor many farmers know today got its start. It looks at how Deere, Ford and IH were major players in an almost forgotten battle to bring power machinery to the farm.

Neil Dahlstrom

“I hope to shed light on a transformative period in an often-overlooked industry and introduce the people, places and brands that, in many ways, defined the century,” Mr. Dahlstrom writes. “Today, most of the world does not know where their food comes from, in part, because a small percentage of the population feeds the world. Power farming made it possible.”

The 304-page “Tractor Wars” is set for release on Tuesday, Jan. 11. Priced at $25, it will be available at numerous online sites, Quad City bookstores and through the author’s website, neildahlstrom.com

Mr. Dahlstrom has not yet scheduled any book-signing events because of the ongoing pandemic, but they may be scheduled at later dates.

The book is published by Matt Holt Books, an imprint of BenBella Books, Inc., and distributed by Penguin Random House Publisher Services. 

Mr. Dahlstrom, who works as John Deere’s manager of archives and history, began researching the story about five years ago when he was preparing for the 100th anniversary of the Deere tractor in 2018.

His research not only helped shine light on the early history of the tractor, but he also discovered his family connections with the companies. For instance, his father and grandfather worked at Case IH in East Moline, another relative worked at Deere and his grandparents met at Minneapolis Moline.

While looking at the history of agricultural equipment is valuable, Mr. Dahlstrom believes “Tractor Wars” provides some lessons for today’s business environment. He added that business people today can learn from the past by seeing what it takes to introduce new technology and create new markets in a highly competitive field.

“It’s about decision making… It’s about taking risks with decisions that went right and decisions that went wrong,” Mr. Dahlstrom told the Quad Cities Regional Business Journal.

He added that the battle to introduce the tractor last century can be seen in today’s battle to introduce electric vehicles to the public.

“It’s all about getting the customers to trust the technology… The new technology kind of looks familiar, but it’s different,” Mr. Dahlstrom said.

Another lesson from the past can be seen in today’s world in dealing with the shortage of workers. The author points out that one of the motivating factors to develop the tractor centered on the lack of workers on many farms. During that era, millions of people were leaving the farms for more stable jobs in the cities.

“With the tractor, a shrinking farm population could still feed a growing world. But getting the tractor from the boardroom to the drafting table, then from the factory to the farm, is a story of technological and commercial competition that, until now, has never been fully told,” Mr. Dahlstrom writes about his “Tractor Wars.”

In addition to outlining the history and battle to develop the tractor, “Tractor Wars” contains numerous links to the Quad Cities. For example, the author tells what a new resident thought of the region almost a century ago: “Less than two hundred miles west of Chicago, Moline, Illinois, which was ‘not as far from civilization as you might have thought it to be,’ a pleasantly surprised employee recruited to John Deere from Chicago wrote.”

Mr. Dahlstrom also is the author of “The John Deere Story: A Biography of Plowmakers John and Charles Deere” and “Lincoln’s Wrath: Fierce Mobs, Brilliant Scoundrels, and a President’s Mission to Destroy the Press.”

Mr. Dahlstrom lives in Moline with his wife, Karen, and son, Grant, 11.

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