EXHIBITORS AT WORLD AG EXPO expect the economy to be the No. 1 topic from for the anticipated 100,000 people going through the gates of the International Agri-Center in Tulare, Calif.

Fortunately, American agriculture is faring better than other segments of the economy, and the 1,600 exhibitors are looking for lively marketing opportunities at Expo 2009.

Exhibitors expect attendees to be in a buying mood, since exceptional farm gate crop and livestock prices made for a good 2008, and prospects remain positive for 2009.

Sales to international visitors at this year’s show are anticipated to be particularly robust, given the buying power they bring to the show.

It is so strong, one exhibitor says, that “U.S. farmers looking to buy equipment at the Expo had better be ready to write a check for what they want ... or what they want may be headed overseas.”

Exhibitors agree on one thing: World Ag Expo is the place to be in the second week of February each year. Those interviewed for this article have logged more than 250 years of Expo show time.

Phil Dee of Kerman, Calif., has experienced two unique Tulare Expo stints as an exhibitor. He was involved in the introduction of the mechanical wine grape harvester into California 25 years ago when he worked for New York-based Chisholm-Ryder, the first major developer of the straddle-row harvesters.

In the early days, Dee says, the first time growers had a chance for an up-close look at a mechanical grape harvester was at Tulare.

“It was the only way a grower could take his time and climb all over the machine to learn what it was all about, because few dealers had any in stock.”

Dee says the show provided the bridge between dealers and prospective buyers. Today, probably 75 percent to 80 percent of California wine grapes are mechanically harvested.

Chisholm Ryder left California about 10 years later, and Dee and his wife, Sandra, started a family business, Sun Empire Foods in Kerman, to roast, dry, and coat nuts and dried fruit with chocolate or other flavors/seasonings. His primary clientele are farmers and processors, and World Ag Expo was a key factor in getting the business off and running. Sun Empire has been at the Expo almost every year since 1985, exhibiting in the Farm and Home Arts Pavilion.

“Eighty percent of our business is growers, and World Ag Expo is the best place for us to pick up new customers,” he says. “If we don’t go to any other show during the year, we have to participate in this one. We missed one or two in the past and noticed a drop in sales afterward.”

The show can be as valuable for companies just getting off the ground as for established companies like his, he says. “If you’re new to the industry or have a new, innovative product for farmers, I can’t think of a better place to show it off, because you know that your customers — growers — will be there.”

Alan Bishop, Kingsburg, Calif., account manager for Monsanto in the Central San Joaquin Valley, has manned the company’s booth for all but one of the past 30 years that Monsanto has exhibited at Tulare.

“Exhibiting demonstrates a company’s commitment to agriculture and to growers in the San Joaquin Valley. In fact, suppliers are conspicuous if they don’t participate in the show.”

Bishop expects the rising costs of farm inputs to be a recurring topic of conversations at the 2009 World Ag Expo.

“Farmers are very price-conscious and pretty demanding about product performance, especially when prices are increasing. The Expo gives us the chance to explain why it’s still worth investing in inputs, especially non-discretionary ones, even if they cost more than last year.”

This will be the 16th year for Verdegaal Brothers at World Ag Expo.

The Hanford, Calif.-based company that markets fertilizers and soil and water amendments attends many agriculture shows and conferences.

“World Ag Expo is the best show for us,” says Jim Gregory, Verdegaal agronomist. “It has the size and momentum that attracts a large number of our customers. They expect to see us there, and we look forward to touching base with them and keeping up on how they’re doing.”

These exhibitors know World Ag Expo nets business, but they can’t top the success story Gregory heard from another exhibitor while taking a break late one afternoon during an Expo a few years ago.

The exhibitor was showing pre-fabricated modular farm labor bunkhouses. “A Japanese delegation had negotiated the purchase of his entire production for the next two years. He was packing up and going home after the first day because he had nothing left to sell,” Gregory says.

Meyer Industries/Rodenator is a show sponsor which gives it a little more exposure than most.

“Repetition is critical for keeping your product’s name in front of customers,” says Ed Meyer of the Midvale, Idaho company. “As a sponsor, we can display our logo at various locations throughout the show to keep reminding attendees about our product.”

This will be Meyer’s 10th Expo. His company exhibits at 75 U.S. and international trade shows.

“If I could only attend one show a year, World Ag Expo would be it,” he says. “If we didn’t attend this show, we’d lose money.”

World Ag Expo also opened up international doors for Meyer, who signed up a product distributor for the United Kingdom as a result of being at the expo. “He knew I had exhibited at the show in the past and wanted to meet me and see what kind of response our product received from show visitors. It turned out to be a very beneficial show for both of us.”

Gearmore, Inc., Chino, Calif., is a charter exhibitor, going back to 1968 when the first event was called the Tulare Field and Row Crop Equipment Show.

Gearmore distributes a wide range of tractor implements and skid steer loader attachments.

Homer Holmes, now the company’s vice-president, was originally hired in 1977 to set up Gearmore’s Expo exhibit. “You won’t find a better farm show. We’re very happy with it and we’ll continue to exhibit here, probably forever.”

Gearmore markets most of its products through equipment dealers. “Every year we invite our dealers to the show, so they can see our latest products,” Holmes says. “It’s much easier to introduce our products in one place than to try and take the equipment to them. The show is much more effective than showing pictures of the products on a Web site. This way, dealers can touch and feel the equipment to learn about all its features and details themselves.

It once took only a day to set up Gearmore’s exhibit. “Now it takes seven or eight truckloads to haul it all in and two weeks to set up.”

Although costs of many farm inputs are up, so are the prices growers are receiving for many crops. As a result, Holmes expects good sales at World Ag Expo.

“Sales of implements for smaller tractors used by weekend farmers will probably go down because of current economic conditions,” he says. “But, I don’t see a downturn in sales of large equipment.”

The global marketplace that seems to be in every agricultural outlook presentation is having a direct impact on the U.S. farm equipment market.

“Rising demand around the world has put farm equipment in short supply,” Holmes says. “You can’t wait to buy at the last moment, like you may have in the past. Now, you have to plan ahead. There’s not a lot of equipment sitting around on dealers lots any more.”

World Ag Expo plays a key role in the marketing plan of Fresno, Calif.-based Weather-Tec Corporation, according to Sales Manager Gary Pendleton. Tulare is in the heart of the company’s primary market.

“If we weren’t there, customers would be asking why,” Pendleton says. “There’s no better place to promote our irrigation equipment than at this show.”

That’s why when Weather-Tec develops a new product, the company introduces it at World Ag Expo.

The continuing increases in metal prices has doubled the price of sprinklers over the past six years, Pendleton says, which has cut into the company’s sales volume. “Still, we’re weathering this storm.”

Pendleton knows farmers will be talking about prices at the Expo. “But farmers are business people and realize that increases in metal prices have affected the prices of other items they buy, like disk blades.”

Bruce Shannon, sales manager for Nikkel Iron Works and T.G. Schmeiser Co., Shafter, Calif. was eight years old when he attended his first World Ag Expo. He grew up to be an orange-jacketed volunteer and ultimately show chairman in 2007.

This year’s World Ag Expo will be the 42nd for Nikkel Iron Works, which was among the show’s original 157 exhibitors. That’s a year longer year than T.G. Schmeiser Co. has exhibited.

The impact of the Expo extends far into the future. Shannon figures the typical show visitor, who comes looking to buy something, will usually purchase it within 12 to 24 months.

“You may do some business right on the spot,” he says. “But usually in February, their budgets for the year have been set. They are at the Expo getting information to plan future purchases. If someone like that has stopped by your display, you have a good shot at doing business with them a month, a year, or even later down the road.”

Despite higher input prices for just about everything, Shannon describes the farm economy as robust because crop prices also are higher compared to past seasons.

“Agriculture is enjoying an upswing,” he says. “Today, farmers are more profitable than they’ve been in a long time. The product lines of both our companies have enjoyed a really good 2008, and we expect that to continue through 2009.”

Equipment from the two companies will be at about a dozen farm shows in the U.S. and Canada each year.

“By far, the Expo is our largest show. Because it’s such a big draw, both domestically and internationally, we meet a lot of customers. The contacts we make at this show set the tone of our business for the rest of the year.”

Dow AgroSciences Senior Sales Representative Harry Peck has been an exhibitor at the Expo since 1975. He’s also a member of the International Agri-Center board of directors.

He has unveiled many of Dow AgroSciences’ new crop protection technologies at the show, including a new insecticide, Delegate, last year. It was selected as one of the show’s Top 10 New Products.

“After all these years, I still get excited about exhibiting because of the opportunity to interact with so many different people,” he says.

“I get to talk with customers whom I see regularly, as well as those from other parts of the country, to see how some of our products might fit with their practices.”

Peck mails invitations to growers to stop by the Dow AgroSciences booth, where he expects this year to hear concerns about the costs of doing business as well as the technical aspects of his company’s products.

“They’ll also be asking about the features of specific products, like ‘Can I use this product on this particular crop?’”

Peck has also been doubling as a volunteer at the show for the past 20 years.

“Agriculture has been my career through the ups and the downs of the farm economy,” he says. “That’s why I’m involved with the show as a volunteer.”

Kevin McDonald, founder of Tillage International in Turlock, Calif. says World Ag Expo “literally brings in growers from around the world. It’s difficult to touch that market any other way. The impact is tremendous.”

email: cblake@farmpress.com