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Farm shows are a rural tradition. But after COVID, their future is uncertain

Farmers check out a new tractor at the Central Missouri Ag Club Ag Expo in Sedalia, MO. The pandemic and changes in the agriculture business have created uncertainty in the future of farm shows
Jonathan Ahl
St. Louis Public Radio
Farmers check out a new tractor at the Central Missouri Ag Club Ag Expo in Sedalia. The pandemic and changes in the agriculture business have created uncertainty in the future of farm shows

It’s a familiar scene each winter in many rural communities.

The annual farm show means combines, tractors, livestock pens and lots of baked goods brought together under one roof. It’s a chance for businesses to exhibit their products and for farmers to check out new equipment.

“I love this show,” said Bill Taylor, a farmer who visited the Central Missouri Ag Club Ag Expo in Sedalia in early February despite a half-foot of snow. “If you want to talk to a guy, you can, if you want to walk by, you can. And that’s what we like about it.”

Like most farm shows, the Sedalia event was canceled last year over COVID concerns. This year, organizers were determined to hold it in person.

Yet the pandemic has been just the latest pressure on farm shows around the Midwest. With a changing business landscape, what has long been a staple of agricultural life may be nearing an end.

“We were well on this path. COVID just proved the point to a lot of people,” said Jim Mandes, northern region sales manager at Krone North America, a company that makes machines for hay production like mowers and balers.

Mandes said the decades-old tradition of equipment makers, seed companies and other businesses that sell to farmers making the rounds to dozens of shows each year has been less cost-effective as time goes on.

“Customers today, they know more about what they are buying than they did 20 years ago, 10 years ago, 3 years ago. The relevance of a trade show, physically seeing machines and talking to reps, is not what it once was,” Mandes said.

Mandes said Krone is focusing on being more selective about which ones they attend. Other agriculture companies are looking at more cost-efficient ways to have meaningful interactions with potential customers, be it through an app or an individualized virtual experience.

“I think a lot of companies were on the interstate looking for the exit ramp and COVID gave them that exit ramp to kind of change up the way they do things,” said Brent Adams, a farm podcaster and radio host, during an online forum last fall on the future of farm shows hosted by North American Ag.

Adams said nostalgia and tradition will keep some farm shows going, but a push for using technology to connect people and more effective spending of marketing dollars will diminish their impact and numbers.

The idea that small town farm shows could be on the way out concerns people like Jock Hedblade, executive director of the Macomb Area Convention and Visitors Bureau in west-central Illinois.

Western Illinois University, sponsor of the annual Ag-Mech show in Macomb, canceled the gathering for the second year in a row because of COVID.

“It’s more than just the financial hit of not selling hotel rooms, meals and shopping trips to visitors. There’s a morale element to it, too,” Hedblade said.

For a small town, a farm show is part trade show, part community event and a big element of a town’s identity. And while Hedblade is confident the Ag-Mech show will return to Macomb next year, he’s not sure every show will survive.

“Some of these towns won’t be able to recoup these types of shows. I think that’s because it loses its momentum. Sometimes these are volunteers that put these together and it’s hard to keep people involved.”

That doom and gloom scenario doesn’t play well in Sedalia, where the organizers of the farm show believe the future is bright. Despite the show coming on the heels of a major snowstorm in central Missouri, attendance was good, organizers said.

The idea of doing something virtually was not even considered.

“A lot of farmers, they are hands-on kind of people. They don’t want to sit in front of a computer or something and do it virtually,” said Danny Young, vice president at FCS Financial in Sedalia, a rural bank that works with farmers, and a member of the planning committee of the Ag Expo.

“They want to get out of the house, they want to go to town, they want to touch the machinery, they want to talk to the people,” he said. “It’s just not a real virtual clientele. And a lot of them don’t have good enough internet access where they live to participate in that sort of thing.”

Young said after talking with farmers at the Sedalia event, it was clear there’s still demand.

“We visited with several of them and asked them the same question, and they said they hope we continue having the farm show because they enjoy coming out, getting to see the machinery, getting to see people in the same business they are in,” he said. “They act like they want them to continue, so we plan to keep having them.”

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest including St. Louis Public Radio. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.

Follow Harvest on Twitter: @harvestpm
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @JonathanAhl

Jonathan is the Rolla correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.