What a deal

Agriculture.com Staff 03/01/2006 @ 2:52pm

When a farm implement dealership went bankrupt in northeast Iowa last fall, leaving a long list of farmers and creditors out in the cold, it caused quite a stir in the countryside. Now some of the farmers are suing the combine manufacturer.

In my rural community, the machinery dealer for 54 years was Clarence Walk, owner of C.R. Walk Implement, Indianola, Iowa. I went to a retirement party for Clarence, age 83, this winter. The party was held at the American Legion Hall (Clarence fought in World War II), and every seat was filled. There were lawyers, judges, the high school principal, quite a few equipment dealers, and a whole lot of farmers.

My, how times have changed in the machinery business since Clarence started out. The first piece of equipment he ever sold was a 1951 Massey-Harris No. 11 manure spreader. (It could be tractor- or horse-drawn the sale brochure read.) Local farmer Ted Wright bought it for $396.68.

Over the years, Clarence sold Oliver, White, Hesston, and New Holland equipment. His clients changed. Indianola is near Des Moines, so many of the area's farms were broken up and became acreages. Sales of compact tractors from New Holland replaced large tractors. Combine sales, the business that got the northeast Iowa dealership in trouble, went away altogether.

Clarence Walk takes a look at a new Oliver combine about 40 years ago.

"For the past few years, all my sales have been to acreages," says Clarence. "It's a different kind of business altogether." These customers "aren't as tough to deal with as modern farmers," he says. With more disposable income, the buyers of compact tractors "will let you make a little money. It is fun to sell to them."

My cousin, Harvey Arter, knows all about this new breed of tractor customer. He spends his days dealing with rural lifestyle enthusiasts as sales manager for Hoober, Inc., Middletown, Delaware (www.hoober.com). Compact tractor sales have become a large chunk of Hoober's business.

"It's a whole different customer," says Harvey. "That's why Hoober segmented the business." The rural lifestyle enthusiast is younger than the average farmer and less knowledgeable about tractors, he says. "They usually have done at least some Internet research before they ever walk in the door of our business. They just don't fully understand what a tractor can do for them or how it works."

Harvey calls them Weekend Warriors. "They have 1.3 hours on a Saturday morning to do chores, then they are off to soccer practice. They will pay you to service the tractor."

Selling involves education, he says, from operation, to maintenance, to attachments. "We approach it as a whole educational process."

Clarence is happy to be retired from the hustle. Getting started in the farm equipment business today, he says, would be difficult for a young person. "You need a lot of money to get in." (Sounds like farming.) "I'm not sure I would enjoy being in the business under the conditions now. A combine is $300,000; a tractor is $200,000. It's not as fun. A lot of companies want you to sell the big combines. The combine business has broke a lot of dealers."

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