The events bookending Kent Klemme’s career in agriculture aren’t the ones he would’ve chosen — the farm crisis in the 1980s and now the coronavirus pandemic. But Klemme is an engineer, which means he’s predisposed to look at such events as opportunities. He’s used these and every other opportunity to help John Deere customers be more productive and efficient.
Klemme is the general manager at Hagie Manufacturing Company, a company wholly owned by John Deere. He grew up on a farm in northwest Iowa, where he enjoyed “taking things apart and figuring out how equipment works,” he recalled. “I’ve really liked equipment and farming since I was a kid.”
That early interest in agriculture has never diminished. Klemme earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in agricultural engineering. “My dad told me to get an education and go do something else for a while — don’t just come back to the farm right away,” Klemme said. Thirty years later, he is still doing something else.
While in college, Klemme worked for an electronics company to obtain experience in manufacturing and quality engineering, since most of his work experience up to that time had been directly related to farming. As an undergraduate, he worked with a graduate student on mapping sprayer applications. This led to his pursuit of a master’s degree in a niche called “site-specific farming.” The program included developing a yield monitoring and mapping system for harvesters.
After completing his master’s degree, Klemme joined a site-specific farming start-up. “We were helping people on projects, and one was working on controlling and mapping a variable-rate fertilizer while air seeding,” Klemme recalled. “This would’ve been about 1993, so this was an early version of precision ag. We had a lot of fun trying to develop something from nothing. But we were pretty naïve. We didn’t even know what we didn’t know.”
Still, the start-up made some headway, earning contracts with other companies and universities to do research. “The market really wasn’t ready for us,” Klemme said. “People were afraid of the unknown. Even now, there’s still some resistance to precision ag.”
Klemme left the start-up to join Ag Chem, a manufacturer of nutrient and pesticide application equipment, where he designed sprayers and other application equipment for “dry, liquid, nutrient byproducts, manure, etc.,” said Klemme. “It was a great experience, particularly from a customer-understanding standpoint, and taught me the value of truly understanding customer needs and being efficient to meet those needs.”
When that company was acquired by a larger one in 2001, Klemme left to become a senior engineer with John Deere.
From big to small, then back to big
At Deere, Klemme had a much smaller team, which was part of a much smaller department that was a much smaller part of the overall business. “We started small,” Klemme said, “but we grew rapidly — over 20-fold over the next 13 years.”
Klemme’s team was responsible for all the tanks, booms, and related application systems in Deere’s growing sprayer product line. “Managing the growth was challenging, from resources to development to global support,” Klemme said. “But it was a lot of fun. I had the opportunity to work on our product portfolio, program management, and product verification and validation. I also spent a lot of time on market and product work to set up plans for Deere’s entry into Brazil’s sprayer market. I spent quite a bit of time traveling back and forth to Brazil, trying to get a better understanding of customer needs there.”
Klemme’s next assignment was as an engineering manager at the company’s manufacturing facility in Horst, Netherlands, where Deere builds trail sprayers and self-propelled sprayers for the European market. “Deere had purchased the business in the late 1990s,” Klemme recalled, “so I was sent there to introduce John Deere engineering processes, tools, and methods for the production line. My time there also exposed me to customer needs in the European agriculture market.”
Returning to the U.S.
Following his stint in the Netherlands, Klemme returned to the U.S. to manage the design engineering organization for all of Deere’s application equipment.
“At the time, we had several projects underway — many were for engine emissions,” Klemme said. “But the most significant was leading the design of the R4030, R4038, and R4045 sprayers, which set new standards for productivity and reliability in the marketplace.”
This was an exciting and fast-changing time — around 2010 — to be in the sprayer industry. The team at Deere also developed the new F4365 high-capacity nutrient applicator and launched a composite boom with King Agro, the company’s partner in Argentina.
“Being at the forefront of developing precision ag technology and providing additional value to our customers have always been passions of mine,” Klemme said.
He then moved to Deere’s seeding, tillage, and crop care businesses to gain experience in multiple product lines, but still was focused on precision ag and crop production.
Then, in early 2016, rather than designing and building its own high-clearance sprayers, Deere entered that market by acquiring majority ownership of market leader Hagie Manufacturing. Hagie would continue to manufacture products at its Clarion, Iowa, facility while its sales and service operations would be integrated into Deere’s global distribution channel. Klemme got the call to oversee the integration and all Hagie operations.
“Taking the job was a no‑brainer for me,” Klemme said. “Hagie has great products. Deere has a great global dealership network. I get to help integrate the strengths of Hagie’s innovations into our product lineup and vice versa.” (Under the terms of the agreement, Hagie became wholly owned by John Deere March 30, 2020.)
The transition from engineering to management was relatively easy for Klemme. His earlier experience in Europe and South America helped, plus he’d earned an MBA from the University of Chicago for his formal business background. “Also,” he said, “Hagie has great people who have expertise in areas that I don’t, and I can rely on them. We call them a ‘Legendary Team’ at Hagie. Couple this team with Deere capabilities and we have the formula for success.”
The Deere-Hagie merger has been great for customers, integrating Deere engines, components, and systems on Hagie’s high-clearance spraying equipment for late-season applications of nutrients and pesticides.
The biggest challenge
Klemme and the team at Hagie have a mission to help customers “enter the field any day.” It’s a bold mission considering the day-to-day challenges farmers face, such as unpredictable weather, trade policies, and commodities markets. And now the coronavirus pandemic is presenting challenges no one could have foreseen.
Nevertheless, “our mission is no different than it was before,” said Klemme. “Our factory and customer support capabilities continue to operate at 100 percent.”
To maintain that high level of productivity and service, Klemme’s team has implemented new processes based on the recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. These new processes include cleaning throughout the facility, increased personal hygiene, and social distancing.
“In addition, we’ve moved a large percentage of employees who aren’t critical to on-site operations off-site, primarily to their homes,” Klemme said. “Keeping employees who are directly connected with manufacturing and shipping safe is our number one priority.”
By mid-May 2020, the pandemic had disrupted everyone’s “normal,” but Klemme is looking forward to its return. He enjoys outdoor activities — including skiing, hiking, fishing, hunting, and enjoying good food and beverages — with his wife and two sons, his daughter-in-law, and their friends — and of course playing around with some John Deere equipment.
For now, though, Klemme remains focused on his biggest challenge: helping customers enter the field any day. “We’re an ‘essential’ business, part of the critical infrastructure workforce according to the Food and Agriculture Sector and the Department of Homeland Security,” Klemme said. “This means our job is to continue to provide products and services to our dealers so our farmers can grow their crops and maintain a continuous supply of food around the globe. What we’re doing is extremely important, and all of us at Hagie feel honored to be part of this.”