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Will future farm shows become a virtual experience?

Steve Mast didn’t mask his disappointment when he heard the news this past Tuesday. 

“In the best interest of our visitors, exhibitors, partners, and staff, Farm Progress has made the difficult decision to cancel Farm Progress and Husker Harvest Days in 2020 due to rapidly changing conditions related to the COVID-19 pandemic,” stated the news release. “For the first time in its more than 65-year history, the show won’​t go on.”

“State fairs. County fairs. Town festivals. Parades. Everything is canceled,” Mast says. “Farm Progress and Husker Harvest Days were the only two events on our calendar that hadn’t been canceled.”

Attending a farm show is of great value for the Illinois farmer. 

“If I see a product online and submit a question, the response may not be immediate,” he says. “I attend a farm show because I want to talk to a knowledgeable person right away. I’m able to ask questions and get an immediate response. When I leave a booth, I feel well-informed.”

Not only does Mast go to farm shows to learn about the latest technologies for his family’s farm, he’s also an exhibitor. Mast, along with his brother Brent, owns and operates Mast Productions, Inc. Nearly 20 years ago, the pair showcased their first invention, Pit Express, an auger with a drive-over unit to speed up the grain unloading process while adding convenience and safety.

“When I attended my first farm show in Indiana as a high school sophomore, I thought it was fascinating, but I never dreamed that one day I’d be an exhibitor,” Mast says. “As a small company, it’s a great place to launch a new product. Visitors can actually see it, and they can ask questions. Through the years, we’ve also become more confident as we stood behind our product to help others understand who we are.”

In its almost two decades in existence, Mast Productions Inc. has sold $17 million worth of grain handling equipment. While the two farm boys have seen success, they’ve also scaled back the shows they attend because of cost and the number of leads a show generates.

“We used to do about seven outdoor shows, and about that many indoor shows,” Mast says. “Last year, we did three indoor shows (Nebraska Ag Expo, Commodity Classic, and National Farm Machinery Show) and three outdoor shows (Farm Science Review, Farm Progress, and Husker Harvest Days).”

The cancellation of a farm show like Farm Progress, which was to be held in Boone, Iowa, from September 1 to 3, 2020, not only affects the agricultural community, but it also impacts the local economy.

“This is probably a low number, but the estimated impact to central Iowa is a loss of $14.2 million,” says Kevin Bourke, Ames Convention & Visitors Bureau, noting that number encompasses lodging, restaurants, and retail.

Because visitors travel from all over the world to attend Farm Progress, the cancellation also impacts airlines and other industries.

“Oftentimes, the international traveler will stay for a week or two, because they are not going to come just for the show and go home,” Bourke says. “They usually do farm tours and visit other attractions.”

World Dairy Expo

In early June, the World Dairy Expo, which was slated to run from September 29 to October 3, 2020, made the difficult decision to cancel.

“The World Dairy Expo Executive Committee reached the difficult decision to cancel World Dairy Expo 2020 based on public health orders and restrictions related to COVID-19 that have been issued by Public Health Madison and Dane County,” says Katie Schmitt, Media Relations Specialist, World Dairy Expo.

In its nearly 54-year history, this, too, is a first for the Expo. 

Founded in 1967 by a few dairymen looking for a place to showcase their registered cattle, the inaugural World Dairy Expo lasted 10 days and featured a dairy cattle show, a modest trade show, dances, banquets, and more. Today, World Dairy Expo, which has been held in Madison, Wisconsin, since its inception, is a five-day event that is home to the globe’s largest dairy-focused trade show, a world-renowned dairy cattle show, international and national youth contests, world-class educational opportunities, and dairy networking events.

Last year, more than 62,000 dairy enthusiasts attended World Dairy Expo from 95 countries. In addition, 859 companies participated in the trade show representing 28 countries, six Canadian provinces, and 41 U.S. states. And more than 2,300 animals were shown by 1,642 exhibitors representing 34 U.S. states and 7 Canadian provinces at the Dairy Cattle Show. 

The Expo’s partners at Destination Madison linked more than $25 million in direct spending throughout the local economy to World Dairy Expo 2019. “Unfortunately, the cancellation of World Dairy Expo 2020 largely impacts not only the dairy industry, but also Expo’s local Madison and Dane County economies,” Schmitt says.

In the short-term, a year without a show means the Expo staff will be working reduced hours through October. 

“Yet, thanks to a skilled and invested finance committee, the organization will remain financially solvent and viable for years to come,” she says. “Long-term, the cancellation has placed the World Dairy Expo Board of Directors and staff in a position to strategically evaluate all components of the event to ensure a strong future and excellent experience for all attendees, exhibitors, and sponsors.”

The 2021 World Dairy Expo is scheduled to take place September 28 to October 2 in Madison, Wisconsin, at the Alliant Energy Center. 

“In the meantime, we encourage dairy enthusiasts to follow World Dairy Expo on social media for community engagement and initiatives designed to support the dairy industry,” Schmitt says.

Farm Science Review

Since its first show in 1963, the Farm Science Review has grown from about 18,000 visitors to over 100,000 visitors today. Back then, visitors paid 50¢ to learn about the latest in agricultural production from the show’s 116 exhibitors. They were also among the first to witness no-till corn demonstrations. 

Today, Farm Science Review, which is held in London, Ohio, attracts over 100,000 visitors, and 600 exhibitors showcase their products. Field demonstrations remain an integral part of the three-day event. The review also includes an educational program, which features Ohio State and Purdue University specialists.

“Demonstration is a strong piece of the Farm Science Review, which includes ag technology,” says John Fulton, professor, Ohio State University. “We use this event as one of our key extension efforts to share our research and other learning materials. It gives us the opportunity to not only engage with farmers, but consultants and others in the ag industry.”

While the 2020 show is still scheduled to take place from September 22 to 24, there is no doubt event organizers are closely monitoring the situation as states see coronavirus cases spike.  

A Rare Opportunity

Ideal for large and small growers as well as large and small companies, farm shows provide a rare opportunity to truly connect with new customers/suppliers especially given how much of ag sales are managed through dealerships/retailers. 

“Farm shows are one of the only events where customers can directly engage with suppliers and be exposed to new products beyond their normal retail circle. That has a lot of value,” says Matt Darr, professor, Iowa State University.

Rebecca Ivey agrees.

“Farm shows give us that valuable face time with farmers. We get to interact one-on-one to show them our current lineup of equipment, the features on those machines, as well as our ever-changing technology offerings,” says Ivey, Case IH Corporate Events Manager, adding that exhibiting is more than just equipment in their booth.

“It’s also the perfect opportunity for us to physically demonstrate what we have to offer with current as well as prospective customers. Whether it’s a ride and drive or an in-field demonstration, we want to provide those experiences, that they can then take back to their operation,” Ivey says.

Going Virtual

As the world has increasingly relied on virtual options to stay connected during the pandemic, could it mean farm shows will do the same especially given the threat of a second and third wave?

“While we continue to see a greater inclusion of media and digital content in the marketing programs across agriculture, which was happening before COVID, it still doesn’t replace the in-person experience you get from a farm show,” Darr says. “COVID will drive more innovation in this space and enhance the overall delivery, but I don’t believe we are to a point where it will fully displace farm show events.”

Because field demos offer a very unique opportunity to see agriculture in action and to learn about trends in tillage, harvesting, etc., Darr believes this portion of a farm show will be very difficult to replicate virtually, if at all. “I think everyone recognizes that YouTube marketing videos are always done in perfect conditions,” he says. “Farm show demos help growers get a true look at side-by-side comparisons of equipment technologies.”

In order for a farm show to be successful, Darr says it has to create value in all three sectors of the event.

  1. Attendees have to receive value/knowledge that exceeds the cost of admission.
  2. Vendors have to receive value/sales opportunities that exceed the cost of attendance.
  3. Organizers have to receive sales/marketing that exceed the cost of the meeting delivery.

“If there were weak points in any of these three elements, a disturbance like COVID could absolutely put future events at risk and result in alternative delivery mechanisms,” he says. “My feeling – based on attendance numbers and the general excitement – is that this is not the case. After COVID passes, we will achieve the same level of value across all three required levels.”

“Farm shows are important to us, and they are something we always want to be a part of,” Ivey says. “It’s really going to be up to us as companies to adapt and grow using both in-person events, as well as virtual events, to create the best possible experience for our customers.”

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