“How are you doing in farming?” Ask that question at the annual World Ag Expo in Tulare, Calif., and you could get one of 350 answers. That's the number of crops represented at the annual gathering in the mud in the former alfalfa field that now claims to be the largest show in the world.

It almost always rains during the farm show. The skies opened up on Wednesday of the three-day midweek February show, but exhibitors says the wet weather that produced rivers down the show grounds' main avenues did not deter visitors.

Good rainy day attendance typifies the attitude most growers expressed at the show, according to exhibitors; times are still difficult, but farmers now are more willing to tread water as best they can until more prosperous times return.

Farm show officials quit giving attendance figures several years ago, although admission is paid. A figure of 100,000 is usually bantered around as the annual attendance. However, most exhibitors say attendance has dwindled in recent years. After all, they say, there are fewer farmers today than there were a decade a go.

Regardless, exhibitors say the crowds were good with an overall optimistic attitude.

“There has been more optimism this year than last. Last year everyone was pessimistic,” said David Parrish, president of A&P Ag Structures, Inc., Visalia, Calif. He sells overhead trellising systems for grape production, primarily for dried-on-the-vine (DOV) raisin production, and raisins are probably the most economically depressed commodity in the state.

‘Guardedly optimistic’

“I would say everyone's attitude has been guardedly optimistic. It is definitely up from last year, however,” said Kubota Tractor service representative Ron McDermott of Fresno, Calif.

“It all depends on which farmer you are talking as to whether or not they are doing well,” said Hanford (Calif.) Equipment Co. sales representative Ken Arnst working in the Gearmore Inc. booth.

“Cotton farmers are doing OK. Specialty crop producers are doing pretty well. Many tree fruit growers are doing OK, but not all of them. However, raisin growers are not buying anything,” said Arnst. There is a huge raisin surplus in storage, and growers are bulldozing Thompson seedless vines due to low prices.

“Niche crops like blueberries are doing well,” said Arnst. “Dairies are not making money right now, but they are spending money.”

People were in more of a buying mode this year than last, said Arnst. “I just had a guy come by who wanted a quote on 10 tractors,” he added.

The show attracts nurserymen like Edgar Tuna, director of equipment, facilities and transportation for El Modeno Gardens, an Irvine, Calif., based nursery that sells to 13 western states from farms in Southern California, Hollister, Calif., and Watsonville, Calif.

“Home sales in California are good for our company and that is good for nurserymen,” he said. “Things are picking up.”

That is good for sales, but new Californians and new homes sales are putting a squeeze on available water supplies. That is challenging nurserymen like Tuna in producing plants.

“Water is a big issue in Southern California just like it is in the San Joaquin Valley or anywhere else. There are row crop farmers and nurserymen who have left Southern California because of the water issue,” he said.

This is Tuna's fifth year to attend World Ag Expo. “I have never come here that I have not picked up an idea or a new piece of equipment for use in the nursery,” said.

‘Must be here’

“The Tulare show is a bad time of year for me because February is the busiest time of the year for me — a lot of growers want to talk to me right now,” said Parrish. “Nevertheless, this is an important show for us and we must be here.”

Many of those producers who want Parrish's personal attention are raisin growers struggling through hard economic times.

Parrish sells overhead trellising systems for dried-on-the-vine raisins. Raisins produced on the DOV system are mechanically harvested and can produce three times more raisins than the traditional, hand-harvested field dried system.

“Last years growers were so down they were not looking for solutions,” he said. “This year they realize there is a solution with the DOV systems. There are new varieties that sugar sooner and mechanical harvesters to harvest the raisins.”

To move to DOV, growers must tear out existing vineyards and trellising system and replace them with DOV systems. The trellising system alone costs at least $3,000 per acre. That does not include the cost of new vines or the mechanical harvester to harvest the DOV raisins.

It is expensive, but Parrish contends consumers will continue to buy raisins and the producers who produce them more economically will be the ones who supply the market.

Takes commitment

“In many cases, there are no solutions to problems in agriculture. There is in the raisin business, but it takes a commitment to accept the solution and move to correct the problem,” said Parrish.

Who is buying into that? Parrish said it is raisin packers who own vineyards.

Tulare County, Calif., is the No. 1 dairy county in the nation and the dairy industry dominates the World Ag Expo.

Dairying also is taking a bigger role in farming.

“One farmer stopped by our booth and said he was switching totally from cotton to silage corn,” said Kevin Long, new field representative for Calcot.

Although a new farm bill and increasing prices are bolstering cotton prospects for 2003, the National Cotton Council informal grower planting intentions survey indicated a slight decline in Acala/upland acreage for California, but a sharp drop on Pima acreage.

“I would tend to agree with the Pima estimate,” said Long. It was for just 159,000 acres in the San Joaquin Valley this season, a drop of more than 24 percent from last year.

“I think a lot of that is due to growers switching to the newer, higher yielding Acalas,” said Long. Four- and five-bale Acala yields were common last year. It costs more to grow and gin Pima.

Long believes the council's 474,000-acre Acala projection for 2003 is low.