The annual Wisconsin Corn/Soy and Pork Expo drew some 1,400 farmers and other agriculture-related professionals to Wisconsin Dells for two days of seminars, annual meetings, a trade show and lots of talking (nowadays called networking).
Some years ago, three farm associations — Wisconsin Corn Growers, Wisconsin Soybean Association and Wisconsin Pork Association — decided to merge their annual trade shows and conventions into one conference or expo.
From small meetings with small crowds in small hotel rooms, the Corn /Soy/Pork Expo now strains the conference facilities at the huge Kalahari Conference Center in Wisconsin Dells.
It's called learning
An array of educational sessions ranging from "Cooking With Pork" to "Unmanned Aerial Vehicles" to "What's Happening in Washington" drew standing room crowds who didn't hesitate to participate in the discussions.
In between the educational seminars and visits to the trade show, each of the three sponsoring organizations held their annual business meetings and planned the year's activities.
The trade show of approximately 140 exhibitors, about 20 more than last year, offered all the products and services that go into the business of raising crops and livestock. And, if you have not been involved in farming in recent years, you'd be most surprised at the number of services, products and technology — many very new — available to farmers today.
How do they do it?
I'm often asked by city friends how a farmer can own, manage, finance and operate a modern farm, whether it is a dairy, livestock or crop farm, that involves so much technology and knowledge.
My answer always centers around the basic principle that to be a successful farmer one must be smart, very smart, and understand finances, technology, employee management and be able to understand and select the management tools that will be used.
Business conferences and trade shows are where one learns about the new technologies, talks to the organizations that offer them, gets details in a brochure or information sheet, seeks information from other farmers who may have used the product or service and then goes home and ponders — and probably does more research and ponders some more.
Ultimately a decision is made, or maybe not.
While farmers are not known for a lots of individual political action, most are members of organizations that are. Discussion of presidential candidates seemed minimal, but the fact that Ted Cruz was the only who has espoused an anti-ethanol position was noted. The recently passed Waters of The U.S. by Congress remains a thorn in the side to most of agriculture, and many still seek a reversal of the law.
On the state scene, the Implements of Husbandry ruling is still a mystery to many, including local and county officials who may enforce it in varying manners depending on their interpretation of the rule. The UW-Extension financial cuts impacting research and county positions were also an issue among some producers.
Have to make a profit
Of course, the market price of corn, beans and pork are much on the minds of producers, especially the corn and soybean producers who remember the heady grain prices of 2011-2013 when corn was in the upper $6 range and beans were $15 or higher.
"When prices are low, you try to produce bigger yields at a lower price," a grain farmer said. "That's why the trade show is so crowded. We're looking for answers,"
Mergers among agricultural companies have been going on forever. Many producers remember the long-gone Blaney, Kaltenberg, Garst and Funk (little and big) seed corn companies and chemical giants such as Geigy, Ciba, Sandoz, Novartis, Stauffer and hundreds of others a bit of research would produce.
However, the recent merger of DuPont and Dow, two well-known ag companies (to farmers), has brought more than average discussion.
When Pioneer, the first company to market hybrid seed corn (in 1926) was bought by DuPont in 1999, it brought more than a little attention to changing times in agriculture. A year later, Syngenta bought a host of seed companies, including still-marketed Northrup King and Golden Harvest. Monsanto, another old chemical company, began buying seed companies in the early 80s and still markets Asgrow and Dekalb.
Dow AgriScience, the other partner in the Dow/DuPont merger, now owns Mycogen seeds.
Still has a job
Kind of all of a sudden, farmers are aware of these major changes among their major suppliers and are paying attention but probably not like the employees of the big ag companies.
A conversation with a number of sales representatives from Monsanto, Bayer and DuPont at the recent Corn/Soy Expo was interesting: It centered on the recent merger of Dow and DuPont that experts say "would join two stalwarts of American industry into a giant worth more than $120 billion and reshape the chemical and agricultural industries"; the aborted efforts by Monsanto to merge (with someone); and the purchase of Syngenta by China.
These sales reps from the several companies were not very excited about what their companies were doing. They have serious fears about their futures: How big do you have to get to be successful, one asked? They can already buy things at the lowest price.
A DuPont representative had, of course, noted the firing of thousands of employees in his company and at Dow as they "cut expenses" prior to the official merger. "I'm still working at Pioneer (owned by DuPont), but none of us know if we'll have a job," he said.
The planned China/Syngenta merger had been announced just a day or two prior, so the Syngenta folks don't have a clue as to what that means to them.
The group sort of concluded that there will probably eventually be one company devoted to herbicides, one company specializing in farm seeds, one offering animal nutrition, one offering insecticides and all of them selling over the internet — thus, no need for sales representatives, and they'd all have lost their jobs.
Don't use our names, one talker said. I won't, but it was interesting to hear their thoughts. Oh yes, they all agreed that the mergers and sales of longtime successful ag companies had all to do with stock prices and nothing to do with better ag products or services. (Note: The combined company will sell about 41 perecent of farm seeds and genetics, experts say.)
Wisconsin farmers produced some 492 million bushels of corn and 96 million bushels of soybeans last year. Chances are they will produce that much or more in 2016 as they use the new technology, products and services they learned about at the conference, hopefully resulting in a profit for the producer/family.
John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information and consulting company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.