Farm Show at 50
By Reggie Ellis
tulare – In the dead of winter, after the deafening sounds of wind machines die down, the engines of tractors sit still and as crops lie dormant, farmers and ranches in Tulare County join their foreign yet familiar counterparts in Tulare to begin the work of spring.
For the last 50 years, the world’s largest farm show has brought growers, dairyman, dealers and manufacturers together for a three-day marketplace and celebration of all things ag. The World Ag Expo will celebrate its 50th anniversary Feb. 14-16, 2017 at the International Agri-Center grounds.
Located in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley, the buckle of the orange belt and the key to the food cabinet of the world, Tulare County was accessible from two major international airports along an ag shipping arterial in Highway 99. As one of the most fertile and temperate growing regions in the world, Tulare offered exhibitors a place to display their products, services and equipment to an audience of farmers that grow everything from major commodities to niche specialty crops, all within a day’s drive.
Since its beginnings at the Tulare County Fairgrounds in 1968, the “Farm Show,” as it will always be known regardless of the official billing, has provided Tulare County with a platform to display its unique location in the global market.
“We did a study in 2003 that showed the show’s economic impact was $1.2 billion throughout the world,” said Harry Peck, event chairman for the 50th show. “This event causes a major ripple effect throughout the global ag economy.”
Peck grew up in the shadows of the show that inspired Tulare. In 1967, a group of seven people from Tulare, including growers, city officials and chamber members, attended the Colusa Farm Show at the Colusa County Fairgrounds just a half block from Peck’s childhood home. “I never had an opportunity to attend because I was in college at the time,” he said. “But I remember it was a pretty big show.”
The Colusa show, California’s second farm show, spawned a third show in 1968 at the Tulare County Fairgrounds called the “California Field and Row Crop Equipment Show.” When the three-day run of the first show was complete, exhibitors were lining up to sign contracts for the second show. The show quickly outgrew its name and became the “California Farm Equipment Show” in 1969 as the show doubled in both attendees and exhibitors, and has continued to grow ever since. In 1970, the show went international with its first foreign exhibitors and by 1972, the name was expanded to “California Farm Equipment Show and International Expo” to reflect the first foreign manufacturers to display at the event.
More than just a marketplace for business, Farm Show is also a meeting place of people. People like Peck have dedicated decades to donning the orange jackets representing World Ag Expo volunteers. These dedicated, selfless, unpaid volunteers are the heart and soul of the largest agricultural exposition in the world. The very concept of the Expo was created by volunteers, started by volunteers and has been operated by volunteers since the beginning.
“Volunteers are what drive the show,” Peck said.
Peck said the army of volunteers have helped save the show on more than one occasion.
In 1970, the show received its first rain, but certainly not the last. When the fairgrounds were soaked into a sea of mud in 1976, volunteers saved the day by working to find ways to soak up the water. Two years later the volunteers rescued the show again by helping drain the grounds drenched by 5 inches of rain. In fact, Peck said he thinks it has rained on the show more years than not.
“This isn’t your typical trade show where people stay away when it rains,” Peck said. “Farmers just put on their rain boots and go on with their day. What would we be without rain?”
Gary Schulz, longtime International AgriCenter general manager, said rain was the primary reason that the show moved to its current location on South Laspina Street just off Highway 99. A close second was the need for more exhibitor space. The Expo continued to grow throughout the 1970s. Already much larger than its Colusa counterpart, the Tulare show directors voted to explore the formation of a special corporation that would establish an international agribusiness showplace in the Tulare area. A non-profit corporation was created as the International Agri-Center, Inc. which leased 158 acres of the Faria family farm as the show’s future home. The 15th California Farm Equipment Show and International Exposition opened its doors on the new showgrounds on Feb. 9, 1982. This new location provided Tulare with the first facility in the Western United States ever constructed specifically to house an agricultural trade show and other farm-related events.
“We basically put a flag in the ground and said ‘we are here to stay,’” Schulz said.
But perhaps a more memorable, or infamous Expo was in 1983, when a blustery storm with 60 mph winds blew away three of the five pavilion exhibitor tents. Not only did it delay the show one day, it also contributed to declining attendance during an agricultural recession for the next five years but rebounded in 1989, when the show sold out of exhibitor space.
The Expo saw exponential growth in size and scope during Schulz’s tenure as general manager of the International Agri-Center from 1990-2005. In 1991, the Expo opened the 80,000-square foot Dairy Center in response to the growing need for more space for dairy industry displays. That was also the same year that Schulz led a delegation of Expo leaders to Paris, which at the time claimed to be the largest international show. “We were already pretty close in size and we officially passed them in the mid-90s.”
The AgriCenter purchased 77 acres from the Faria family in 1995 with an option to buy the remaining 85 acres. In 1999, the exhibit area broke the 2 million square foot mark, broke ground on the Heritage Complex and debuted its park and ride shuttle. The next year, the show got its first visit from the Secretary of the United States Department of Food Agriculture, Dan Glickman. And, finally, the current name, “World Ag Expo,” was adopted in 2001 as the show welcomed 900 attendees from 61 nations as well as 52 exhibitors from 15 countries. Throughout the years, exhibitors found the now World Ag Expo a show devoted to the task of bringing seller and buyer together, a sound investment in the future of their business.
“In those three days, an exhibitor can make more contacts than they ever could in a year making cold calls, buying sales lists or driving up and down streets,” Schulz said. “And growers see more new technology and ideas than they could ever research online. And not just see it, but see it demonstrated and talk with the engineer that built it.”
This year more than 1,500 exhibitors will display the latest in farm equipment, chemical applications, organic best practices, communications and technology, 10 times more than first Farm Show in 1968. And despite the grounds sprawling over 2.6 million square feet, Peck says the show continues to sell out of exhibitor space and the waiting list continues to grow.
“We are constantly talking about expanding the grounds,” Peck said. “We are always looking to add more parking and more permanent buildings. It keeps on growing.”