Each August, thousands of full-time farmers, hobby farmers and agricultural enthusiasts swarm 325 acres of the Lott family farm in Seneca Falls, New York, to attend the annual Empire Farm Days. The promise of discovering innovative technology, networking with others and learning from hands-on demonstrations has created a mecca for anyone involved with or interested in any aspect of agriculture, from dairy and field crops to small grains, vegetable production, livestock and horse training.
The perennially popular event is the highlight of the summer for attendees who can network with nearly 600 vendors and exhibitors. For many, this year’s event – scheduled for Aug. 8-10 – is the highlight of the summer. For the management team that plans the show, it is the culmination and the kick-off to the next 12 months’ worth of work to create the event that has become so popular that it draws participants from all of New England, Ontario, Canada and as far west as the Mississippi River.
“Today’s society feels that we don’t have the time that we used to,” said Melanie Wickham, show manager and executive director of the Empire State Potato Growers, Inc., the organization that originated the event. “We believe that now more than ever it’s imperative for us to offer a show that gives attendees an opportunity to see everything in one place and our attendance reflects that we’re accomplishing that goal.”
Once the last piece of equipment leaves the grounds at the conclusion of the event, Wickham and her team begin thinking about the coming year’s show. They visit other farm shows from New York to California, and Canada, to find ways to enhance the next year’s event, and attend grower and producer meetings throughout the winter to gather feedback. Vendors are an integral part of the planning process, too.
“Our vendors are good about brainstorming and developing new ideas for their exhibits and programming to address visitors’ interests and needs,” Wickham said.
This year, the event will celebrate its 84th season. The annual event began as way for farmers to discover innovations to improve on-farm efficiencies and has continued to keep that at the core of its mission.
Empire Farm Days history
In 1931, the Empire State Potato Growers launched its inaugural “Potato Field Days.” The goal was to provide farmers the opportunity to see the newest equipment, watch demonstrations on the latest planting or harvesting techniques and to gather general information about raising potato crops. “A group of potato farmers realized that their voices were stronger when working together rather than going it alone,” Wickham said.
“Often the event was held at a farm that had recently built a new storage facility or invested in a new harvester,” Wickham said. “It was a chance for a grower who was doing something different to highlight their efforts to other farmers.”
Innovation was the focus of each year’s gathering; although the event was hosted by the potato growers association, the vast majority of these farmers also grew other crops including onions and small grains. “Manufacturers realized that all these potato growers were gathering in one place, and maybe it was a good idea for their dealers to be there,” Wickham said.
At first, the event moved every year to a new venue. As the show evolved in size and scope, the infrastructure was too costly to only use one year. So, in an effort to control costs, it was held at the same site for two years in a row. The show managers worked with the host farmer to plant crops used in the field demonstrations, but even that approach became difficult and costly to manage.
A permanent home
Wickham was hired to manage Empire Farm Days in 1986. She made it her mission to find a long-term home that could handle the size of the event.
“The weather in New York in August can be a drought or rainy and wet,” she said. “We had to be able to guarantee that regardless of the weather, the show would go on. The site had to have good roadways, power and a setup that could accommodate visitors rain or shine.”
Early on the job, Wickham found a letter from a local extension agent recommending the Lott farm. The agent cited the family’s long-standing commitment to agriculture. Previous event organizers weren’t keen on the farm’s flat fields as they preferred rolling hills so they filed the letter without visiting the site. After finding the recommendation and seeking input, Wickham thought the location was an ideal fit. The Seneca Falls farm was easily accessible, and the large block of land that was available made the farm the perfect fit.
“We went in with our eyes wide open to try the arrangement for a few years with the goal of working together long term if all went well,” she said.
The Lott family began working as farmers in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, in the 1950s and early 1960s. The family grew mostly grain and hay crops and even raised tomatoes for Campbell’s soup. On rented land in Delaware, they dabbled in asparagus. Farm families were quickly losing ground to developers, so the family sold and relocated to the Florida Panhandle.
“The family ran cattle, grew soybeans, wheat and peanuts,” Ralph Lott said. “It was a little dry there, and so the family sold out and moved up to where we are now in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1980.”
What started as a 600-acre parcel of land planted into corn and soybeans has expanded to 3,500 acres. “We run pretty lean and mean,” Ralph said. “My wife runs the grain cart. My son Ben, 25, oversees the soybeans, and my older son, Rodman, 35, manages the corn.”
“The Lott family is incredibly committed to farming and not just for themselves, but for all farmers in the Northeast,” Wickham said.
The family’s duty to agriculture extends beyond the Empire Farm Days. Ralph currently serves on the New York Corn & Soybean Growers Association board of directors and hosts other events to promote agriculture.
Outside of the Empire Farm Days event, the Lott family hosts a career day in coordination with the local workforce development program. The career day brings nearly 600 students to the farm to experience working with farming and construction equipment and to see welders and carpenters demonstrate their skills.
“Not every kid is going to go to college. This gives them an opportunity to learn about an agricultural trade,” Ralph said.
Planning truly begins as soon as the event closes, but much of that work takes place in the office or around the country at grower meetings and other farm show gatherings. Once spring breaks, on-site preparations begin.
The Lott family works closely with the Empire State Potato Growers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service personnel and seed company representatives to plan field trials that will be highlighted during demonstrations. On average, they’ll plant 10 acres of corn and 10 acres of hay and have 10 acres available for tillage demonstrations.
“We try to rotate with different crops. We have always struggled to get good hay to grow, but this year we’ve planted it with alfalfa, and it looks like it’s going to be a really good stand,” Ralph said.
Everyone is watching the early-season weather for planting opportunities so the fields are planted in time for August. This is when Wickham begins putting all of the ideas she has gathered into motion.
“We reach out to speakers, work with exhibitors on demo ideas and sponsorship and start our marketing efforts,” she said. “We make changes and tweaks to programming to make sure we are highlighting the newest equipment and technologies.”
Throughout the spring and summer, the Lott family regularly mows the 70 acres used for vendor booths and parking. They also watch the planted field trials to make sure growth is progressing as planned.
In the last few weeks leading up to opening day, the phone is constantly ringing with questions, new vendors requesting information on how they can become part of the show and media requesting interviews. The program is mailed and the site crew stakes each individual booth space and prepares all signage.
“The electrical team gets to work wiring the grounds with power and the tent company moves in like a circus and the big tops start popping up in a row,” Wickham said.
What starts as a core group during the planning process expands to a much larger crew to get the site ready for the show. “It really takes a hard-working farm village to execute the show to the success for which it has become well-known,” Wickham said.
A father-son team runs the electricity and makes sure all of the connections and hook-ups are ready for move-in day. One week prior to the event, the crew balloons to more than 100 workers who help with everything from parking to programs, info booths and distributing the complimentary bags of potato chips from the Empire State Potato Growers.
“We rely heavily on the community – the local residents – to assist with setup and on the community of show and visitor participants to provide feedback and input on future events,” Wickham said. “We work with the Seneca County manager to make sure we’re following all the codes and regulations related to safety and emergency response.”
Eye on the future
Wickham strives to stay ahead of the major trends and to make the show relevant to all Northeast farmers, not just those in New York. She works with the USDA, Cornell University and Cooperative Extension, industry leaders and others to organize a plethora of seminars from dairy profit seminars to soil health workshops to equine round pen demonstrations. The show annually features a NY Agricultural Leader Luncheon on site.
“We focus on technology [and] what is new and make it our mission to share that information with all attendees, from a farmer with just a few acres to the state’s agricultural leadership. While the show has evolved in its focus from potatoes to a wide range of production agriculture, our commitment to innovation and our ability to share that will never change,” she said.
Although there may be fewer individual farmers today than there were more than 80 years ago when the event began, farming is still needed on a large volume to feed the world population. “It’s amazing the increased efficiency in which farmers are operating,” Wickham said. “The wealth of knowledge and the tools that have evolved could not have even been imagined back in 1931.”
Time isn’t as available as it once was and now it’s more imperative than ever that the Empire Farm Days gives an opportunity for everything all in one place.
“In one day or over the course of all three days here, attendees can see everything they need to be successful now and long term,” Wickham said.