Slim crowd enjoys huge ag event

John Oncken
Tent City sat on 70 acres at the Walter Grain Farms for Jefferson County Farm Technology Days July 23-25.

Maybe it was the location: “Too far south in the state to draw people from the big dairy area in central Wisconsin,” some said. “The perfect weather for the big farm show was also perfect weather for making hay,” others opined. “The poor ag economy  doesn’t encourage farmers to spend time looking at products and services they don’t have money to buy anyway,” was another offering. “The host farm was not a dairy farm and dairying is still king in Wisconsin,” others suggested. And finally, several suggested “perhaps it has outlived its original educational intent."

Whatever the reason(s) the long and well planned 65th edition of Wisconsin Farm Technology Days drew what might be termed minimal crowds over its three-day run at the Walter Grain Farm near Johnson Creek in Jefferson county. 

Noon on Wednesday, plenty of walking room.

So much to see

The farm show had about everything — programs, exhibits, food, weather and a perfectly produced event by the host farm and hundreds of Jefferson county volunteers and sponsoring businesses — except for big crowds.

I attended Farm Tech Days on Wednesday, the middle day and usually the biggest attendance day  I drove through the entry road, and gate and into the parking lot about a hundred feet from Gate D without hardly slowing down. A rather unusual occurrence based on years of history in attending these shows was a thought that passed my mind.


Christine Bender, co-publicity guru met me with a golf cart and we took a tour of the tent city and I took a few photos of the sparse crowds walking the exhibit streets. Then a run over to the field were the field tiling demonstration was taking place with a goodly number of people watching. 

Cristine Bender, publicity co-chair and dairy farmer meets a Percheron horse.

We ended up at one of the big business exhibit tents and I hobbled my way (bad knees) through the many booth exhibits mostly talking with attendees. As always the aisles were fairly crowded. I think folks like to see the exhibits without walking all across the 70 acre tent city to do so and these smaller, side by side exhibits offer new and perhaps smaller companies the opportunity to be seen and talk with potential customers.


Another ride on a media golf cart brought me by the biggest crowd I’d seen on the grounds: The children’s pedal tractor competition where kids big and small pedal the small riding tractors pulling the device that lowers into the ground, thus making it more difficult, the further you go. It’s not always the biggest boy or girl who wins the class, it’s the slow and steady who goes the farthest.  

Kids tractor pedaling contest always draws a crowd.

So much to see

The various tents offered exhibits of many kinds on many subjects, For instance: Crafts of many kinds, farm organizations, government organizations and so much more.  One would really need to spend a couple of days to view all the offerings on display.

Not a new subject

Nevertheless, the issue of crowd numbers is difficult to ignore.There just were not big crowds on the grounds. But that’s not a new development, here is a quote from this column back in 2008.

One of the much-discussed subjects was the future of the farm show. The vision of ever bigger crowds persists with numbers ranging in the 75,000 to 90,000 often discussed and hoped for.  The first day and a half of this year’s event brought out a good — but not a great crowd in many exhibitors opinions. 

Many doubt this show ever drew anywhere near the 100,000 people as is sometimes claimed. Mostly the totals were wild guesses based on estimates of folks who had no facts other than the total should be bigger than the prior year.

Phil Miller, Ag Sales Manager at Wieser Concrete, Maiden Rock, (now retired) said he had a great first day at this 2008 event. “I talked to a dozen farmers who were already good customers of mine. They had compliments, complaints and suggestions and they knew they could find us here and talk to us. Yes, they could call and I’d visit them. Yes, I could call them or stop at their farms." But, this show provides the setting and the opportunity for us to get together.  It’s great!”

Miller doesn’t see the show’s success as tied to big numbers. “Look across the road.” he said pointing to the Gerrits dairy complex. “They milk 1800 cows--the equivalent of 20 dairy farms that have left dairying. Times have changed, the farmer numbers aren’t here anymore, but the show is of great value to us and we’ll keep coming in spite of modest attendance. It’s worth it to us!.

I visited a good many exhibits and found fairly similar reactions from the suppliers.  Everyone agreed that the big numbers cited over the years where probably never reached but they weren’t concerned. 

A 3 inch plastic line, 3-4 feet deep, 30 feet apart is the norm.

It’s now 11 years later than when that was written but the conversation hasn’t changed much. 

I talked with a goodly number of longtime exhibitors after this year's event. Here are some of their thoughts: 

• A livestock equipment dealer ... It might have been the good haying weather but the crowd was just not there and during the extended three hours on Wednesday, I had only two visitors.  I took pictures each day of the food tent near me. There is always a line at noon, but not this year. You could walk right in.  I actually did OK at the show because I offer a full line of equipment that people came to see.

• A concrete construction company ... If we end up with even only one sale it will be a success for us, the next three months will tell the story. We expected a small crowd.

• A full line field equipment company ... We didn’t figure on a big crowd, it was located too far south and this is really a regional show. 

• A major forage equipment manufacturer ... Such a small crowd! No visitors after 4 pm on Wednesday.

Most of the exhibitors I talked with are looking forward to next year’s Farm Tech Days at Eau Claire and the 2022 show in Clark county because of their central locations. But they were concerned about the 2021 show at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds. “We probably won’t make that one,” several said. 

Each commercial exhibitor has their own way to mark a successful Farm Tech Days. A new company may see big visitor numbers at their exhibit as their goal. A large company with only one visitor who bought a new freestall barn would see success.

“It’s easy to lose 10,000 people in a 65 acre tent city," one exhibitor says. “But, 10,000 people would look like a pretty big crowd in a 20 acre tent city — maybe they should consider cutting the size of the exhibit area?”   

Superb effort

Yes, the crowd was small but the Jefferson county agricultural community worked so hard and did a great job of planning and presenting.  I especially thank Christine Bender who as co-chair of publicity kept the media (like me) so well informed and up to date.  

Over its 65 years of life Farm Technology Days has made many changes as has farming and that will continue. That’s how life goes and that’s good!  

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.