66 Farm Shows and 67 years of change

John Oncken
After perusing an exhibit tent, the question is “where to go next?” There are over 500 exhibitors in Tent city.

1954 was only nine years after the end of World War II and farming was in the midst of its industrial revolution. The pent up demand for farm machinery was exploding as factories were in full production after the many years of producing only war equipment and veterans were back on the farm  after getting college degrees under the GI Bill. 

Horses were but a memory on most farms, farm electrification was burgeoning and a new age of farming was here. Veterans training classes were being held throughout dairyland and County Extension offices were the leading source of ag information from the University of Wisconsin College of Agriculture.

Yes, there was the annual Farm and Home Days where County Board Agricultural committees were invited to visit the UW campus and hear from a limited number of faculty reporting on the latest farm research but it outdrew parking space.

Displays by major manufacturers offer a chance to compare.

A new idea

In 1952, UW agronomist Henry Ahlgren then chair of Farm and Home Week, came up with the concept of an outdoor farm show, an event for farmers to learn about the discoveries of university researchers where both exhibitors and farmers could participate and learn about the latest agricultural advances.  

The mission of the show was to promote technologies in agriculture and related industries and provide leadership development and education through businesses, industry and agencies. 

The huge crowd at the 2008 event in Brown county calmly left the show in mid-afternoon as officials warned of a severe  storm approaching.

The first show

The idea became reality and the first Farm Progress Days was held in 1954 on a farm near Manawa in Waupaca County on  September 30 and October 1, a Thursday and Friday. The estimated attendance of 15,000 was much less than planned but financially, the show was a success with an unexpended balance of $500. 

In December 1954, the state board reviewed the results of the show and deemed it a ‘flop’ based on the wet soil conditions (8.8 inches of rain during the week of the show) and show attendance. However, the board decided to continue the show and extended an invitation to the Waupaca County group to again host the 1955 show.  

Recent shows have seen too many empty streets as  attendance has been low.

67 years later

It’s now 67 years and 66 shows later (no event last year) and Wisconsin agriculture and the now Farm Technology Days are unimaginably different from those so long ago. I have attended many Farm Progress and Farm Tech Days - here are a few memories I will never forget.

Dodge Co., 1991. Biggest crowd? Maybe

Vigo Farms served as the host farm for the 1991 show, July 9-11, near Brownsville. Gordon Berg, farm owner (and close friend of mine) had developed an outstanding herd of Black and White Holsteins and a herd of Red and White Holsteins. The cows were milked in two barns, one red and white for the Red and White Holsteins and a black and white barn for the Black and White Holsteins. The red and white barn with 40 tie stalls, an in-barn stationary TMR mixer and an elevator to the second floor was newly built for the show and proved to be a major attraction This 1991 show attracted one of the biggest crowds ever. Gordon Berg died in 1994 and the much acclaimed Red and White Holstein barn later became a manufacturing facility. 

Field demonstrations in the past have always drawn a crowd.

Columbia Co., Sept. 20-22, 1995 

This show was held in the Wisconsin prairie near Arlington on the Klahn and Manke farms. Tom and Judy Klahn operated a swine production system marketing 2,200 pigs using a remodeled dairy barn. Tom and Kris Manke had a beef operation along with corn and soybean production. Today a 1500 cow dairy barn constructed by the Meinholz family of Blue Star Dairy stands upon the tent city field.

With the  advent of precision agriculture, an Ag Tech 2000 tent was established to bring this new technology to the farm community. During the show a grain combine with a yield monitoring system was operating in a corn field adjacent to the AgTech 2000 tent. The information visible to the combine operator was transmitted to a television monitor visible to show visitors.                                

The 1994 show was the first show where admission fees ($2.00 per adult) were charged. Increasing costs for insurance and utilities was given as the primary reason. The annual commemorative toy tractor for the show was also introduced during this show  The Columbia county committee selected an International model 1568. Since 1994, a commemorative tractor or machine has been selected and sold.  

Kids of all ages love to climb into big tractors.

Washington Co., July 11-13,1995

Dan and Marge Neuberg of Slinger hosted the 1995 event which was noted for its plus 100 degree temperatures. Today the 100-cow, 800-acre show site has been developed into residential housing and businesses.  

Lots of changes in 67 years: in farm shows and farming. What will farming be like 67 years from now? Can’t even guess!

John Oncken can be reached at 608-837-7406 or email him at