The Rev. Johnny A. Phillips headshot

The Rev. Johnny A. Phillips is a retired minister and resides in Burke County. 

Ethical dilemmas were settled more easily back in the ‘50s watching cowboy movies --- the good guys were always distinguished by their white hats. But ethics in life is never quite that simple. Most predicaments have their assets and liabilities, and weighing one against the other can be quite difficult.

An American historical event serves well to illustrate this point.

For centuries, farm families had labored almost in vain to tame the unruly soil of the heartland. Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas, Iowa and Oklahoma possessed a top soil that contained the correct elements for growing the nation's food supply, but it was fine and silty. It tended to clog up in mud balls on the old cast iron plows , necessitating plowmen to stop all too frequently and clean them. Like Dudley Do Right to the rescue, John Deere appeared with a plow blade recycled from a worn out steel sawmill blade. So effectively did it cut through the soil it would actually vibrate at a high pitch and became known as the “singing plow.

The downside of this story in which Deere seemed to be something of a savior, is the plow was sold by the tens of thousands. Not only did Deere become a household name but it also caused millions of acres of fine soil to be susceptible to wind erosion. In the middle of the Great Depression , such a blow, accompanied by a drought, spread across the North America continent so fierce and for so long, we remember it as the Dust Bowl.

Was John Deere's singing plow a blessing or a curse?

But the story does not end there. Swarms of locusts and grasshoppers had always plagued the heartland. Native American's campfire stories told of them going back into prehistoric times. On July 26, 1931, a swarm of grasshoppers estimated to weigh about 27 million tons descended upon what crops had been able to survive throughout the land and devastated them and the families striving so hard to survive.

Fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder will remember her description from a personal observation in “On the Banks of Plumb Creek”: “You could hear the millions of jaws biting and chewing.” When her family retreated inside their house she continued, “Grasshoppers went inside with them. Their clothes were full of grasshoppers. Some jumped into the hot stove where Mary was starting supper. She covered the food 'til they had chased and smashed every grasshopper. She swept them up and shoveled them into the stove.”

But another component of the episode was not immediately prominent. Agriculturalists noticed that the swarms began to greatly decrease after this date. Only later did they discern that as Deere's singing plow was spreading further west into Montana and Wyoming cultivating millions of acres, previously impossible for farming. That was not the only benefit. They discovered these lands had been the breeding grounds for the grasshoppers and locusts, however, when they were tilled and irrigated, this region was no longer suited for the pests to propagate.

North America no longer has plagues of locusts and grasshoppers of Biblical proportions.

Was John Deere's singing plow a blessing or a curse? A success or a failure?

By the world's standards, virtually each hero of the Bible was a failure --- Abraham, Moses, David, Peter, just to begin a much longer list. Each one of them made their mistakes But like Jeremiah who also committed his share of errors, they believed, “This is what the Lord says: You know if a man falls down, he will get up again. And if one goes the wrong way, he turns around and comes back.”

Arianna Huffington, founder of The Huffington Post, perhaps stated it most eloquently with the words, “Failure is not the opposite of success, it is the stepping stone of success.”

Johnny A. Phillips is a retired minister and resides in Burke County. Contact him at

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