MOLINE, Ill. — Chad Olsen and his Olsen Custom Farms harvesting team are no strangers to the John Deere combine.

For his Hendricks, Minn.-based custom harvesting operation, these big green machines are the workhorses that enable crews to harvest 600,000 to 700,000 acres of crops each year for farm customers stretching from Texas to Watson, Sasketchewan, Canada.

Even with his 25 years in the business, Olsen had a quiet excitement about him as he climbed into the cab of a new John Deere combine last week as it moved along the manufacturing line at John Deere Harvester Works in East Moline.

It marked the first time the farmer/entrepreneur accepted the honors of starting his new combine as part of the plant’s Gold Key Tour. “Usually I let the employees do it,” Olsen said. “I can walk out of my shop anytime and start a combine.”

But this particular visit to Harvester Works’ Station 220 — the Gold Key Tour stop where a customer conducts the machine’s first set of systems checks — held special significance. This was the 500th John Deere combine Olsen has purchased.

As he tested the machine’s operating systems, Olsen had an entourage of 28 family members and Olsen Farms employees standing below to witness the momentous occasion. Taking the controls, Olsen checked some 30 different systems of the machine with a John Deere employee’s guidance — watching for updates on a flat screen television monitor outside the machine.

The process checked everything from the engine to its hydraulics, the separator, lights, monitors and even the horn. The whole checklist would get inspected again later down the line by members of Deere’s quality team.

Olsen’s crowd, who he brought overnight by charter bus from Minnesota, snapped photographs as he marked the occasion. Among his guests were two of his five children, son Charlie and daughter Ellie, longtime employees and a group of employees from South Africa, who join the harvesting crew each year.

The 500th machine is part of an order of 13 combines and eight pieces of front-end equipment that Harvester is building for Olsen. By year’s end, Olsen said he will purchase 34 new combines from John Deere.

“We don’t grow our fleet until we have the jobs,” Olsen said. With a total fleet of about 75 combines, he said the size of the fleet has been stabilizing over the past few years. “We’re playing it safer because we don’t know what the farm economy is going to do. We’re trying to stay efficient.”

The bus trip, which included a luncheon at John Deere World Headquarters in Moline, provided a good distraction and break for the Olsen Farms team before its heavy lifting kicks off again in April.

Among the employees was Travis Schrick, who was on his second Harvester tour with his employer of 11 years. A semi-truck driver, Schrick said his job is to pick up and deliver the team’s combines to its different harvesting jobs across the United States and Canada. “We follow the harvest,” he said, adding the combines begin shipping April 1. “By mid-May or June 1, they are cutting.”

Crews will start with the small grain first and wrap up with the large grains harvests, he said. Crops include wheat, canola, mustard, barley, milo, corn, beans, sunflowers and field peas, Schrick added.

Production excitement

Inside the manufacturing plant, Olsen and his team’s presence could be felt from the time they entered the Visitor Center doors to the applause of more than a dozen John Deere team members to the reaction of dozens of employees on the factory floor. As the two dozen visitors toured the plant on trams, production employees greeted the group with cheers, “thank yous,” applause and an occasional thumbs up.

On one of the very first stops, one worker walked to the tram and asked, “Which one of you guys is Chad?” and proceeded to walk over and shake his hand.

“You could feel the buildup of this all week long knowing this machine was coming,” said Haley Franks, a Harvester Works production supervisor, or module leader. “We have a lot of people do the Gold Tour experience here, but this is the first time I’ve been part of a 500th customer.”

Deere officials were hesitant to confirm Olsen to be the first 500th combine customer. Given all the attention showered on the Olsen team, it was nonetheless an occasion of note.

“It’s just been a special experience,” said Franks of Walnut, Ill., a six-year Deere employee. “When you think of how much money Olsen Farms has spent with us and invested in us, that says a lot about our product.”

Jane Freeburg, an assembler for the past 10 years, said a 500-combine customer helps validate the work she and her co-workers do every day. “What we try to do here is put out the best quality machine so the customers can do their best job at harvest.”

Her co-worker, Kari Bormann, an 11-year employee, added that every customer who comes in for a Gold Key Tour “is a privilege to meet.” “Every machine we make is sold and has a name. But to see a face with it is uplifting and gratifying.”

Deere executive Doug Roberts, who is the director of Deere’s global combine business, also was on hand at the plant for the milestone customer.

“That is some kind of loyalty that allows a customer to buy 500 combines. You can see how excited our employees are,” he said.

That level of purchasing also takes a sophisticated business operation like Olsen’s, Roberts said. “He runs 40 combines brand new every year and 40 from the year before for his rental business.”

In addition to custom farming, Olsen has his own farm operation in Minnesota and rents out equipment to other farmers.

‘Stayed green’

For Olsen, his dedication to Deere runs deep. In fact, he said other companies have offered to bring their machines for his crews to try. “But we’ve stayed green.”

“When we first started, we had no money, no financial backing and John Deere Financial took us on, so we’ve stuck with them,” he said.

Olsen did not set out to do custom combining, but was led down the path after a devastating fire Dec. 19, 1990, destroyed the then young farmer’s dairy barn. With his head of 48 cattle and their calves killed, and 3,500 bales of hay and other contents destroyed, Olsen faced his $100,000 investment gone up in smoke, and at 22 years old, had to start over.

Olsen said the business, which now employs as many as 70 during peak harvest, began with him “and a worn-out combine” working for other neighboring farmers to make ends meet in 1993. Over the next decade, the operation grew to a fleet of 21 combines, 13 semis, four service trucks and four grain carts.

Today with a fleet of 75 to 80 combines, the team harvests — and custom plants, too — hundreds of thousands of acres across the United States and Canada. Beginning in spring, crews harvest small grains in the south and work north until October, or later, finishing up the Midwest’s corn harvest.

“We’ll do any size farm from a 300-acre farm to a 30,000-acre farm,” he said. “My wife always reminds me we do small jobs as well as big jobs because it was the small guys that got us started. Every job makes a difference at the end of the year. They’re all just as important. Size doesn’t matter.”