The following segment was excerpted from this fund letter.
In our engagements with farm equipment maker Deere (NYSE:DE), we have followed new technology as it has developed from early promise of environmental and social benefits to market reality. In March 2022, Deere’s Chairman & CEO and CFO met with ClearBridge’s investment team in our New York offices. While prior to the pandemic we had regularly hosted the company, this meeting was among the most interesting as the relatively new CEO outlined a bold plan that placed improved environmental stewardship squarely at the center of the company’s future.
Industrial farming, at its core, is not an especially environmentally friendly enterprise. Agronomic practices have improved over time, but fertilizer, herbicide and pesticide applications and water usage remain problematic. Deere believes its precision farming technology can drive down chemical and fertilizer volumes materially —possibly by as much as 70% — as sensors and cameras attached to tractors, sprayers and combines help determine the exact level of chemicals that might be required.
This more precise methodology is expected to:
- improve crop yields;
- reduce farmer input costs; and
- improve overall land management capabilities.
Farmers will make more money and grow more food to support global populations while at the same time better caring for the soil. There are also substantial environmentally positive knock-on effects because fertilizers largely are either carbon-based or mined.
There are also social benefits to Deere’s precision farming, such as increasing access to cost savings for smaller, non-commercial or family farms, and the contribution of improved crop yields toward SDG 2: Zero Hunger. This is in addition to its benefits for SDG 15: Life on Land through promoting sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems. Deere’s technological strength also includes bringing connectivity to farmers in emerging markets, for example improving Wi-Fi access for farmers in Brazil.
New equipment pricing has moved much higher recently as Deere upgrades its offerings to support this effort. That said, the company has introduced substantial aftermarket packages so farmers using older equipment, who may not be able to afford completely new items, benefit from this technology.
Lastly, we discussed a timeline for transitioning large farm equipment away from diesel to an alternative fuel. At present, however, there is no viable alternative that has the power requirements necessary to drive a tractor for an hour, much less a full day, making any such transition a more distant opportunity.
Overall, we had been waiting to have this discussion for several years, and we were pleased the company’s technologies finally appear to have caught up to precision farming’s initial promise.
Editor’s Note: The summary bullets for this article were chosen by Seeking Alpha editors.