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Italian companies eyeing expansion into U.S. market

There among the swings and seesaws and other riding toys is a plow. A common, ordinary, horse-drawn, turning plow, mounted on a pedestal, waiting for a child to pretend to open a furrow across an Italian field.

But what seems like an oddity is not that strange if you know something of the history of the Bologna region, a relatively flat area of fertile soils and small farms near the top of the Italian "boot."

Because of its location in the heart of Italian farming country, Bologna has become one of the centers of the Italian farm equipment industry. It is also the host city for the Esposizione Internazionale delle Industrie di Macchine per l’Agricoltura or EIMA, one of the largest farm equipment shows in the world.

This year’s EIMA Show, the 33rd, attracted 114,000 visitors and 1,755 exhibitors from 47 countries. Officials with UNACOMA, the organization which puts on the EIMA show along with the Fiere Internazionali di Bologna, said all of the exhibit space was snatched up in the first week that applications were accepted.

In a press conference prior to the show, Aproniano Tassinari, UNACOMA’s president, said the demand for booth space is a sign that, despite the downturn in economic conditions worldwide, the Italian farm equipment industry remains healthy.

Equipment prediction

For 2002, UNACOMA predicts that Italian manufacturers will produce 919,000 tons of tractors, farm implements and spare parts for a total value of 6.48 billion euros or a slight increase in weight and value over 2001. (A euro roughly equals one U.S. dollar.)

"The increase in production in 2002," Tassinari says, "has been due mainly to the growth of exports in that the domestic market has remained stable against 2001. On the basis of data for the first half of the year, we expect increases in exports of 2.5 percent in weight and 1 percent in value for tractors and 3 percent in weight and 3.7 percent in value for agricultural machinery."

Exports have long been one of the mainstays of the Italian farm equipment industry, accounting for about 70 percent of its annual sales or $6 billion in 2001.

The bulk of those exports or 73.4 percent are to other countries in Europe with the remainder going to the United States, Asia and Africa. Several Italian farm machinery manufacturers are hoping to increase their sales to the United States.

One of those is Celli, S.p.A., a company based in Forli, Italy, that is developing a machine that could help fill the gap when methyl bromide is completely phased out in the United States and Japan.

The Celli machine, which is called EcoStar, uses a combination of injected steam and a non-toxic material that causes a reaction in the soil that stops the growth of soil-borne disease pathogens. In contrast to other equipment on display at EIMA, which produces steam only and moves a few feet an hour, EcoStar can travel 150 to 300 meters per hour.

Expensive, but…

The equipment will be expensive, but Celli personnel do not expect that to be a major obstacle.

"When you talk to American farmers, they aren’t as concerned about costs as they are about productivity," says Paolo Celli, sales director for the firm. "They do have very exacting standards for how they expect equipment to perform."

"We have great hopes for this equipment in California," says John Inman, a Salinas, Calif.-based agricultural engineer who has been working with Italian companies to help them bring their equipment to the United States. "They are going about developing it in a very cautious and scientific manner."

Celli won’t venture a forecast on how soon the equipment might be available in the United States.

"We are about to finish our fourth year of tests on the equipment in Italy," he says. "But we want to test it in California before we offer it for sale there. We believe we can make it work suitably for American farmers, but we want to make sure of that before we begin selling the equipment there."

Inman, who retired from the University of California system as a farm advisor several years ago, says several Italian companies have profited from finding a niche market in California and other states and filling it.

"They have been very adept at taking equipment they’ve developed for the European market and using it to fill a need in the United States," he says.

One of those is Tonutti, a manufacturer of mowers, conditioners, hay tedders, hay rakes and rotary rakes. Tonutti introduced the first "V" pull-type rakes with hydraulic opening and closing and adjustable row widths in North America in 1989.

Windrow adjuster

Tonutti, which has a warehouse in Memphis, Tenn., displayed a new optional remote-controlled electric windrow adjuster for its Dominator and Millenium Series rakes at the EIMA Show. The unit allows the operator to adjust the windrow width without leaving the tractor.

"We have placed a controller on each of the last two rake wheels so that they are independently adjustable," says Tonutti’s Lucy Colombaro. "This saves time for the operator, both in not having to get on and off the tractor and in having to make time-consuming adjustments to the equipment."

Tonutti exports almost 95 percent of its products with 80 percent of those going to the United States. It also has a warehouse operation in Russia.

Another older Italian company that is looking to expand its sales in the United States is Tortella, a manufacturer of spaders, rotary cultivators, rotary tillers, shredders/mulchers, power harrows and combines that was started by two brothers shortly after World War II.

"Tortella has been exporting its products to Canada and the west coast of the United States for many years," says Maria Rosa Bankston, sales representative for Tortella. "Now they want to go further in that market."

As part of that plan, she says, Tortella recently selected a new U.S. firm, Agricole International, headed by Chuck Peters, to represent its interests on the East Coast and Midwest regions of the United States.

"We receive calls from U.S. dealers about our smaller spaders and rotary cultivators and tillers," says Ms. Bankston. "We ask why, and they say they can’t find them in the United States."

Like others interviewed at the EIMA show, Ms. Bankston says Tortella has no illusions about the ease of entering the U.S. market. "U.S. farmers don’t always have a lot of brand loyalty," she notes. "If they can find it for less money, they may go somewhere else to buy a product.

"At the same time, they want a product that will stand up under U.S. conditions. With our 40 years of experience in the market, we know our products will do that."

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