The 64th edition of Wisconsin Farm Technology Days has come and gone, and the 60 acres of tent city behind the dairy barns at Snudden Farms near Lake Geneva are reverting to cropland.
The big farm equipment is gone – back into dealers' display yards or stores — and sales reps are shuffling their notes and making appointments to visit folks who stopped at their exhibits.
As always, and as planned, the show was a display of the tried and true; the new and emerging; and the possible and maybe. That's what this show is about ever since 1954.
The exhibitors were there, as were the volunteers, food stands and tents full of displays, seminars and programs of every sort. All that was missing were the big crowds to view and enjoy the event.
Typical summer temperatures (80-plus degrees) greeted visitors Tuesday and Wednesday, with 90-plus degrees the last day. Hot? Maybe, yet this show is most often held in the dead of summer, so warmish temps shouldn't be unusual or a problem.
I spent part of the second day (Wednesday) at the show. As I exited my car about 11 a.m., I hailed a ride on a four-wheeler (it was a long walk to the heart of the show). Already hitching a ride were Dale and Peggy Isaacson, Malone, who made the trip to buy curtains for their freestall barn (a recent storm took their curtains down). They said they liked the ride rather than a long walk.
Where are the people?
We were surprised at how few people we saw walking around tent city — just lot after lot of near-empty exhibits. I got off at Ag Business Tents A and B and made the inside circles. There was not much happiness among the exhibitors, many who were sitting down.
'There's just nobody coming by,' a rep of a major company explained. 'And yesterday was worse.'
And, he was right. The business tents filled with smaller exhibits are normally crowded with lookers and talkers, but the crowd was sparse inside and exhibitors were mostly talking with each other.
I caught another 4-wheeler ride — the show's media committee is kind to media types — and toured many blocks looking for some crowds to photograph with little luck. In fact, crowds were as light as I've ever seen at this show, and I've been to so many of them, and it wasn't because of the temperature.
I'll admit I felt really bad knowing how hard the show hosts, organizers and volunteers worked to put it all together — and the pride they all felt in doing so. I've done a lot of thinking since, remembering the big Farm Progress, later Farm Technology Days, of the past and their big crowds. (Although never as big as proclaimed.)
The primary thought that came to mind was: it's just too big.
I've said it for years that you don't need a 60-acre tent city. Most folks can't walk far enough and fast enough to see many exhibits. Yes, I believe there are shuttle wagons that folks can use, but they may not be there when you want or go where you're heading.
It's easy to see the many showgoers who have canes; are pushing strollers with little children riding or following; are over the age for long and fast walking; or are gathered in groups talking to friends.
One of the reasons the WPS Farm Show at Oshkosh each spring is so popular (and growing) is that you can view most everything in one day by walking the much smaller layout. Exhibits are smaller, closer together and easily accessible.
I noted a few of the comments from exhibitor friends:
'I heard an estimate of 5,000 people on Wednesday,' a super sales rep from a major farm equipment company said. 'I'll bet it was closer to 3,000.'
'The crowd was really slim,' another top sales rep said. 'But I may have met enough potential buyers to make the show worthwhile.'
'We probably had only 50 people at our performance on Tuesday and a few more today (Wednesday). We usually have a full house at our show,' Randy Meyer, who exhibited his 10-horse pyramid hitch, summarized.
Why the decreasing crowds at Farm Tech Days? Some thoughts.
·One inescapable fact: farm and farmer numbers have declined over the years. Bigger farms, both dairy and grain, mean fewer potential buyers.
·Although every show aims at attracting big numbers of city folks, it just doesn't happen. Most nonfarmers have day jobs and don't take vacations to attend farm shows. Besides, they are not that interested in looking at farm equipment and visiting the booths to look at things they don't understand.
'This started as a farm show and remains a farm show; that's why we exhibit,' a longtime farm equipment exhibitor commented. 'City folks aren't customers.'
·Tent city is just too big in terms of acreage. There are many folks with canes, pushing strollers with kids and couples who don't walk far or fast. An exhibit area half the size (acreage-wise) might allow them to see more of the show.
·The fact that UW-Extension agents will no longer be the automatic show chair shouldn't be a problem. According to the show format, 'any profits generated from the event are used in the host county, usually to support youth programs, scholarships and nonprofit organizations.' Last year Dane county distributed $150,000 after expenses.
So, hire a manager and appoint UW-Extension people to serve on committees with volunteers.
I talked to enough exhibitors to know that they were disappointed with the crowd size, but like all sales folks, they don't like to complain and are always optimistic that they had gotten enough contacts to make their exhibit a success.
Am I pessimistic about the future of the show? No, not at all, but times do change, as has agriculture. Nor do I do not want to see a permanent site established as other states have done — no way.
It's just the time to take a close look at how to make the current format more workable to keep a great show great.
I'm sure the FTD board wants (and needs) the exhibit rental from the big areas, but I'd bet the big exhibitors would pay the same for half the space, especially if more people visited their exhibit.
There's an old rule always remembered by people who organize meetings: It's better to have 1,000 people in a room holding 950 people than a room holding 5,000 people. The crowd always looks bigger in a small room; the same number of people in a too-big room makes people think the meeting was a failure.
A final thought for the Board: ponder a smaller tent city. Charge the same for smaller exhibits and, oh yes, no more shows in deep southern or far northern Wisconsin.
John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.