It never failed. If you stopped a farmer and asked directly how he had fared these last five years, he was all too willing to talk economic depression and how it hadn't been this bad since the '30s, when at least the entire country was suffering.
But if you just wanted to talk about Agri-Action '85, maybe the world's largest farm equipment show, and why the farmer had come, where he was from and what impressed him here--well, that was different altogether. That was a grin and a laugh. Why does any kid like to visit a toy store? Why are there people who never miss a car show? Why spend a lazy afternoon window-shopping on Rodeo Drive when your budget is so tight that even parking in Beverly Hills is a splurge?
The 103,000 who attended the 18th annual California Farm Equipment Show and International Exposition last week in this small agricultural community between Fresno and Bakersfield came to drool, to run their hands over shiny new tractors and shake their heads incredulously at all that these newest of the new wonder machines could do.
They came to listen to the spiels: how baking soda in cow feed will increase milk production; how use of UltraSeal's tire life extender would mean better fuel mileage, cooler-running tires and longer tire life besides protecting against most flats and blowouts; how Anco rubber bands offer superior strength and stretch.
They came to collect literature on everything from the Versaladder Type I (heavy-duty industrial)--regularly selling for $233 but as a show special, we'll let you have it for $149.95--to Holman Design truck scales, the single-animal scale selling for $2,900 plus calibration. They grabbed up the freebies: a strip of Dura-Tape, a drip irrigation hose for row crops; a bumper sticker asking "Have You Hugged Your Heifer Today?," offered by Arm & Hammer Feed Grade Sodium Bicarbonate; and from at least one out of every five exhibitors, a plastic tote bag with the firm's name imprinted on it.
Some came to see each other, to visit and devour Italian sausage sandwiches at the Sons of Italy booth or linguica sandwiches at the booth run by the UPPEC, a Portuguese society, or shout friendly barbs at those pillars of the local Armenian community barbecuing shish kebab at the Triple X booth.
Many dropped in at the seminars, talks by specialists on such topics as dairy farming, nutrition, cash management, stress management, genetic engineering and agricultural economics sponsored by such organizations as the Tulare County Farm Bureau, University of California Co-Op Extension, Bank of America, California Women for Agriculture.
Finally, people came to see things they'd never seen before.
A Three-Day Carnival
The California Farm Equipment Show is best described as a three-day carnival, complete with hot-air balloons, blimps, brightly striped tents and fast-talking hawkers--but with no games or wild rides. Instead, filling the 80 fenced acres were 800-plus exhibitors pushing everything a farmer--of any kind--could need or dream of.
As for city types, well, they had to ask if they were to learn that this bizarre flying saucer on a crane was a Tol Tree Topper hedger, useful for trimming citrus trees (depending on size of the device, $61,000 to $125,000). Or that Teratorn Aircraft's motorized kite (as described by a local farm reporter) was in reality a crop duster selling for $4,595 for the ultra-light version and $6,895 for the Tierra II.
The Tulare show's organizers remain conservative about its size, content to put it among the largest farm shows in North America. Aside from a full-time paid staff of four, the show is nonprofit and run entirely by about 200 volunteers. This year's chairman was local cotton grower Dean Mahan. Proceeds from the $3 admission and exhibit space rentals are recycled each year into improving exhibit conditions and the farm show grounds, a 155-acre former alfalfa field, which the show's board of directors leased as a permanent site in 1982 after outgrowing the Tulare County Fairgrounds.
A Diverse Crowd
There's no modesty, however, about this being the world's most diversified farm show. It's inevitable, said show manager Sharon Saltzman, what with everything from strawberries to barley, cattle to zucchini, grown in California and, particularly, in the San Joaquin Valley.
"That's why this show attracts equipment, products and services that people would never see otherwise," she said. It's also why the crowd is so diverse: last year's 101,000 visitors came from 34 states and 30 foreign countries.
The crowd: some were small farmers, others large. Some were cattlemen; others dairymen. Many weren't even farmers, but were in agriculture-related fields.
They arrived in trailers and trucks, Toyota vans, Ford station wagons and 20-year-old Chevies. They were lining up even before the gates opened at 9, marveling at the great weather--though rain during past shows had deterred surprisingly few--and how well-organized the parking was.
They wore jeans--Levi's, Jordache and Calvin Klein's--and business suits. Some came in cowboy hats, others in colorful duck-billed hats bearing the name of a favorite agriculture product. On their feet: Adidas, heavy leather work shoes, pointy-toed tooled leather boots or scuffed plain stubbed-toe boots.
An Annual Ritual
They came with their families, everyone from the 3-year-old to the eldest son, taken out of school for the day because, as one mother said, "a day at the farm show is more education than a week of classes"; others with their buddies or co-workers, an annual ritual this shutting down shop for a day to come to the farm show.
Of course, the essential question: Did they come to buy? Well, maybe. The show is known as a good place to pick up some nice discounts. But farmers are slow to put out a dollar, especially these days.
Take Mike and Bill White, brothers who grow cherries in Lemon Cove, a village east of Visalia in the Sierra foothills.
The tractors, so many of them, that's what really had them wishing, Mike White said. However, that was pure window-shopping. As far as the show was concerned though, "you have to come to these things to stay competitive and efficient."
The Whites were among the cluster outside the International Pavilion observing the Purivox Escalon, a German device to scare birds out of orchards.
This is an ongoing problem and the show always draws a number of products offering a solution, this year ranging from bird bombs and whistlers to a special formula of cayenne and garlic which could be spread around trees.
A Show Stopper
The Purivox device, however, was a show stopper. Operating from a pump, which could be moved anywhere, it made a loud shotgun noise every 10 seconds or so and, as double scare power, shot up a fancy plastic butterfly. The fancy butterfly was an extra. With a non-fancy plastic flower, the price was $245.50.
Were the brothers likely to buy this? Mike White shrugged. "Well, the birds are a real problem. I'll tell you, they like cherries. They can clean you out real well."
What really tempted him though, he said, pausing as the Purivox boomed again, was a gopher machine. "It makes gopher holes, then drops the poison in. Really works, I hear."
How much? White grinned. "Well, it's $400, but I found a used one. In fact, I was standing at the booth where they were taking orders for these things and the guy standing next to me was selling his. Guess that didn't please the salesman too much."
No way around it, the tractors and other seemingly exotic large machinery are what grab visitors first.
Set amid the six pavilions on the granite paved grounds, the tractor and heavy machinery exhibits were like centerpieces on the various main thoroughfares and smaller auxiliary streets. For one thing, it's hard to squeeze a few tractors, planters, tillers, self-propelled sprayers in a 20x20-foot space. So there were those bright green John Deeres, red Honda three- and four-wheel haulers, sunflower yellow Stallion flotation applicators (to name just a few) on strategically scattered 80-by-80 lots that had been covered with bark and landscaped with a few odd trees and chrysanthemums.
In the Driver's Seat
And over, under, climbing into the driver's seats--mostly men and boys, and most less interested in talking to the always available sales representative than just checking it out for themselves.
Though that was not necessarily so at the Australian exhibit, much of it covered by a bright yellow awning. Aussie sales representatives, wearing bright yellow windbreakers with a red kangaroo logo, were busy telling how Australian farmers are so isolated that their equipment must be particularly rough and tough and that quality, combined with the strong U.S. dollar, make buying Australian a smart move. It's such a smart move, said Geelong Agricultural and Engineering Co.'s Peter Betts, that the Australian government had actually invited him and a number of other Australian farm equipment firms to participate in the show and had picked up the $80,000 tab to put the display together.
At the moment, Betts was answering questions about the GAEC no-till direct drill colter, which makes it possible to seed without prior tilling. Very important these days, it means a field can be used for other purposes right up to seeding.
This kind of versatility was what was selling farm equipment today, Betts said, "and it may be the one good thing to come out of the whole thing (the farmers' depression). The farmer these days just has to take a look at the economics of everything he does."
Still, even if a machine didn't make sense in his life didn't mean a farmer couldn't look. That's where the fun was--learning about some of the truly crazy stuff around.
A Crowd Gathers
Just in front of the Hickinbothan Bros.' large exhibit of hand tools and steel processing brakes, for instance, a crowd had gathered around Don Gedding as he demonstrated the Koike coordinate drive flame shape cutting machine. Pretty nifty the way you could run a tracer over a pattern and the machine would cut any shape you wanted, the thicker the steel the better. What's more, the IK 600C was lightweight and compact.
Don Gackstetter stuck through the demonstration to collect one of the steel reindeer being turned out by the machine. A big burly man wearing a sweat shirt that labeled him from Hendricks, Minn., and a white balloon with red advertising attached to his wrist, Gackstetter allowed as how he'd never seen anything like the flame-cutting machine before. He grew grain and soybeans in Minnesota and was visiting friends in Ramona when they decided to come to the show.
Would he buy this nifty gadget at $4,300? "Never can tell," he said with a sly grin. "I suppose it would come in pretty handy if I were to ever retire and want to spend my time cutting out reindeer."
What did tempt him then? "Oh, a lot of things. But you see, so many things here are so different from what I'm used to. This just interests me because of all the different crops and I had no idea what it took to grow them."
Exactly the thinking of Marianne and Harold Downes, bean and corn farmers from South Dakota who for the past few years have been spending winters in Hillsboro. This was the first show they'd been to in three years and by mid-afternoon, they were wandering slowly down the show's main street, contemplating whether to call it quits for the day.
'Drools Over Everything'
What drew them to the show? "He loves to come and drool over everything," Mrs. Downes said of her husband. "He'd love to buy that big Kubota tractor over there."
Had they bought anything? "Well, some nylon gloves that they had over at that pavilion there for half price, $6. But I wouldn't think of buying anything large to take back," Downes said.
"For the smaller things, though, California is way ahead in agriculture and you see things here you'd never see otherwise. Like a number of years ago, we saw a gadget that tests sugar in grapes. We're starting to fool around with grapes a little, so we thought we'd track that thing down, maybe order one."
Fortunately, the exhibitors seemed to have no false illusions that they were going to collect their year's quota of orders from this show. In fact, Jim Pratt of Santa Rosa, standing behind the Sonoma Grapevines booth, seemed genuinely surprised that he'd gotten even one order that day. What's more, the farmer had ordered Gewurztraminer vines "which is really obscure," plus the more popular French Columbard and Flame Seedless.
"What usually happens," Pratt said, "is we come, stand around, hand out our literature and a few months later, we start getting calls. I don't know how much business is actually generated from these shows, but our owner believes you should go out and not let people forget who you are."
If the depressed state of the farmers these days didn't dampen the carnival atmosphere of the show, the reality of the situation nevertheless was hardly far from anybody's mind. Fowler raisin grower Kay Tanaguchi, for instance, said only half jokingly, that he was about to "join the bread line like everybody else."
It was enough, everyone seemed to figure, just to look, listen and marvel: At the hydraulic tree planter; Westec's tree shaker (great during a nut harvest) which also will operate an orchard sprayer and power a flail mower; the Australian-manufactured wind pump which one observer said looked like a bunch of feed buckets upside down.
And computers. A few of the exhibitors had brought computers to analyze a potential customer's needs on the spot, then provide him with a printout which he could take to his distributor. Still, when it came to actually getting one for themselves, people tended to shy away from booths like AgStar, which manufacturers agricultural business software.
It wasn't that they doubted the computer's usefulness, but in these hard times, it was too easy to say--as show chairman Dean Mahan did--"with 140 acres, most of which I farm all by myself, I don't feel like I'm big enough for that."
Actually, as a few people reflected after a day or two of wandering, maybe the best thing about the California Farm Equipment Show was that it made them feel so good about agriculture.
Rich Helwinkel of San Jose may have been typical. He was taking a photograph of a Tink claw bucket, which could pick up rubbish like a hand rather than the more traditional scoop.
"I come every year and I spend the entire three days here," Helwinkel said. "It takes three days just to really see this show. I think I'm a misplaced farm boy.
"You know, people say agriculture is going downhill. But look at this technology, it's just amazing."