It will soon be the time of year for farm shows. There are two shows in August: Empire Farm Days in central New York and Ag Progress Days in Pennsylvania. The Eastern States Exposition and World Dairy Expo are a bit later in the year, while the Pennsylvania Farm Show and the New York Farm Show are winter events.
Attending farm shows is entertaining, but to make the most of your visits, particularly to shows with a large number of agriculturally related commercial exhibits, you should have a plan or at least some objectives. Are you considering purchasing a new piece of equipment? These events often have company representatives who know a lot more about the particular item you're considering than the local dealer does. For instance, if you're interested in buying a forage harvester, at a farm show you may be able to talk to the manufacturer's representative who "lives and breathes" forage harvesters. At Empire Farm Days, some of the equipment is demonstrated in the field, so you get to see how it operates under something approximating real farm situations.
It doesn't have to be an item as large as a forage harvester, either. One year I was interested in buying a snowblower. After visiting a number of equipment dealer exhibits, I concluded that some paint colors must be much more expensive than others, since several virtually identical snowblowers--same size, same engine, etc.--differed by 25 percent or more in price.
It helps to focus
Some farm shows have so many exhibits that there's no way you'll have the chance to do more than walk past a lot of them. Consider in advance what you're most likely to purchase in the near future, and be sure to visit these exhibits. Make these visits early in the day, since some of the more informed representatives may not be at the exhibit the first time you stop by and you'll need to return later in the day. Some of these folks are stuck at the show for several days and they like to wander around and see what's new, just like you do.
Pay attention to "show specials," some of which are not very special at all, while others may represent real bargains. After hauling several pieces of equipment to the show site, dealers may be interested in selling you something at a nice discount just so they don't have to haul it back home.
Beware of the hype
Most farmers are savvy shoppers, and they need to be to make the most of a day at a farm show. Whether it's seed corn, silage inoculant or milking parlor equipment, each dealer claims to be selling the absolute best. Look behind the hype and ask for data or other information to back up any claims being made for the particular product.
One year I was at the World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wisconsin, and decided to visit every commercial exhibit selling a manure additive. There were at least half a dozen, and at each exhibit I asked the representative two questions. First: "Does this product reduce objectionable manure odors in slurry or liquid dairy manure?" The answer, of course, in almost every case was, "Yes, it sure does!" Second: "Do you have any data or other factual information to support your product's claim?" In most cases, this second question was met with a blank stare or resulted in some hemming and hawing, because it turned out that there was absolutely nothing factual from any of the companies showing that adding their product to dairy manure, either in the barn or in the manure pit, would have any meaningful impact on odors. Some products claimed to reduce ammonia odors, but ammonia isn't usually among the more objectionable odors when dairy manure is stored under anaerobic conditions and then applied to a field.
Not all of the dealers were rendered speechless by my second question about their manure additive. A couple of them presented me with glowing farmer testimonials indicating that their product worked miracles. It's likely that these farmers actually believed that the product reduced odors, but consider that what they were almost certainly comparing was manure from one year (or at least one season) versus manure from another year or season, and year-to-year remembrance of manure odors is less than perfect.
For example, one fall we were spreading liquid dairy manure on some of Miner Institute's cropland when the nonfarming landowner whose home was next to the field stopped the guy on the tractor and said that the institute's manure didn't smell nearly as bad as it had the previous fall, and that he really appreciated whatever we'd done to make it less offensive. The employee reported this to me, and I just smiled since we hadn't done a single thing differently that year. Other than on a small trial basis, Miner Institute had never used any manure additives. However, the landowner was happy, proving once again that sometimes ignorance is bliss.
You should take farmer testimonials with a grain of salt--or perhaps a shakerful. It's not that the farmer making those comments is intentionally trying to be misleading, but there's no way to know if the product was responsible for what the farmer saw as a success or if some other factor was involved.
Another thing to consider: Have you ever seen a negative testimonial for a product a company is trying to sell? Such as, "Yep, I tried that Binbuster 101 seed corn and it didn't yield worth a darn. Worst corn I ever planted." I didn't think so. A high percentage of companies are reputable and ethical, and they're not trying to mislead or sell farmers a pig in a poke, so to speak. They realize that to stay in business, they need to keep you in business.
Farmer testimonials aren't a bad thing per se, but it sure helps if the comments are backed up with factual information regarding the product's performance. In the case of seed corn, there are university hybrid trial results; in the case of bull semen, there are bull proofs; and in the aforementioned case of manure additives, it would be useful to have some indication that the stuff really does what it's advertised to do. Whether it's at a farm show or when talking to a salesperson visiting you at your farm, remember these four words when claims are being made: Where is your data?
Ev Thomas has worked as an agronomist in New York for 48 years, first with Cornell University Cooperative Extension, then with the William H. Miner Agricultural Research Institute in Chazy, New York, including managing its 680-acre crop operation. He continues to work part-time for Miner Institute and is now an agronomist at Oak Point Agronomics. He has written our Forages column for 16 years and has been an expert contributor on a number of other topics.