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“A big family reunion” Year after year, show’s volunteers pitch in

FOR ONE WEEK ONLY EACH YEAR, the human inhabitants of Tulare County, Calif. exceed the dairy cow residents, and the population of the town of Tulare triples.

It’s the second week of February, when World Ag Expo envelopes the farming community in the central San Joaquin Valley.

About 100,000 people traipse through the International Agri-Center grounds, where more than 1,600 exhibitors showcase the latest in products and services for a worldwide agricultural audience.

It is not just the numbers of people who attend the Expo, there are also thousands of pieces of equipment and an untold number of boxes and crates full of literature, booth displays, product reminder giveaways and assorted other items needed for the largest agriculture expo in the nation.

World Ag Expo has gone from just 157 exhibitors and 28,000 attendees at the Tulare Field and Row Crop Equipment show four decades ago to what it is today.

And making it run smoothly is a tribute to the largest horde of local volunteers of any trade show, convention or conference anywhere in the world. They get the job done year after year, and have fun doing it.

The now famous 1,200-strong World Ag Expo volunteers put it all together and take it all down every year. They’re called the Orange Jackets, The Big Orange Machine or the Tulare Difference.

Tulare, Calif., farmer Robert “Bobby” Uchita has logged almost four decades as an Expo volunteer. He was chairman in 1986 and remains intensely involved, but still he admits he sometimes shudders and shakes his head in amazement at the reality of putting on World Ag Expo almost totally with volunteers.

“You couldn’t afford to pay enough people to put on something like World Ag Expo,” says Uchita. “When I get to thinking about what the community of volunteers has accomplished, it seems almost unbelievable.”

It also is a great source of community pride.

“It has been good for the community, the agricultural industry and the whole San Joaquin Valley,” he says. “World Ag Expo has put the valley on the map as an unparalleled agricultural destination. We take pride in that.”

“I think if you set out to create something like World Ag Expo and run it with volunteers, it would be impossible to pull off,” says Mark Watte, Tulare County dairyman/farmer, who has out-of-town cousins who take vacation just to volunteer at the big event.

The Watte name is synonymous with World Ag Expo. There are more Wattes on the list of volunteers past and present than there are Smiths in the telephone directory. There are Wattes who don’t even live in the valley who volunteer for duty at the show.

Watte began working as a volunteer in 1982 and was chairman of the 25th anniversary show 10 years later.

“If you shut down the Expo tomorrow, you’d still have the 1,200 volunteers get together each February — or sometime — for a ‘family reunion,’ he says. “The largest farm equipment show in the world is honestly an excuse for a family reunion.”

Reunions are fun and normally a time to relax. But not at World Ag Expo. This reunion is a lot of work.

It shouldn’t be surprising that volunteers make the expo happen. After all, Tulare County is a farming community, where hard work is a way of life.

Not all the volunteers are farmers or ranchers, however. Accountants, merchants, even a state Assemblywoman and a museum curator are counted among volunteers. Still, it’s the work ethic of rural California that infects the mass of volunteers.

In the early days farmers trucked in forklifts and drove or hauled their own tractors, loaders and implements to the show to get it ready and keep it going. They tossed pumps in their pickups to drain the inevitable ponds that developed during the oft-rainy days. Today, though, much of the equipment used at the show is trade-outs with exhibitors.

Volunteers still laugh about the deluges past, when the expo was held at the Tulare County Fairgrounds. In fact, show organizers advertised they wanted rain in the early days so farmers would be kept out of the field and come to the show.

Rubber boots used to be mandatory for attending the Expo. Most veteran Expo goers still make sure to have a pair in the pickup before they head to Tulare, although the new show grounds handle wet weather much better than the fairgrounds did.

When Expo folks talk about the weather, 1983 invariably comes up. The day before the show was to open, a huge windstorm blew down a number of tents, including a large circus-style tent that was ripped open.

Volunteers showed up at midnight to start putting things back together, not only erecting up new tents, but helping exhibitors put the pieces of wrecked exhibits back together. The show didn’t open the first day, but thanks to the volunteers, it still had a successful three-day run.

Exhibitors have nothing but praise for the Orange Jacket Expo battalion.

Ed Meyer of Meyer Industries, Midvale, Idaho says the volunteers do a great job of putting on the show . “I don’t care what it is you ask them to do, they’re always willing to help ... and always with a smile. No other show takes better care of its exhibitors. They provide the facilities and services. It’s my job to show up, promote my product to the people the Expo brings to the show, and reap the benefits of their work in putting on the show.”

One reason exhibitors like Expo so much is that they don’t have to go far, or need binoculars, to find an orange jacketed volunteer and instant help.

Volunteers have never gone hungry. One group of local farmers caters meals for volunteers working for several weeks before the show to prepare the site and then cleaning up the grounds afterwards.

Each show chairman is selected by a panel of the immediate past five show chairpersons. To be selected is a source of pride, and each chairman identifies his year with the weather.

“Mine was a wet year, although at the new Expo grounds, rain is not so much an issue,” says Mark Watte. “Lately, we’ve had more dry than wet years.

“My year as chairman was the 25th anniversary year. We had silver caps, fireworks and a quite a bit of extra stuff for the anniversary celebration.”

As the Expo moves well into its fifth decade, Watte believes its future is bright. “With many community events supported by volunteers, 25 years is usually the length of the run before support begins to wane. But, World Ag Expo continues to build, because it’s held at the right place at the right time each year ... and it has an incredible group of dedicated volunteers.”

Like many chairmen, Watte has traveled to shows worldwide.

“Most other shows, even in Europe and the Midwest, are somewhat regional in scope because of the crop mix in the areas. At Tulare, the world comes to see everything, because we produce everything imaginable in California.

Watte cites the California dairy industry as an example of the uniqueness of WAE. “There’s no place in the world that does large dairy herd management like California, and no better place to see that than at World Ag Expo.”

He got his orange jacket as a first-year volunteer in 1982, when Richard Rogers was chairman. Rogers’ son, Scott, has been involved in the show for 25 years and was chairman in 1998.

That was the year of a grounds expansion, and Scott said Expo managers had to start another waiting list when even the extra space sold out.

Rogers went to a farm show in New Zealand during his term as vice chairman, where he saw a display of flags from the nations represented at the show. He introduced the same idea at World Ag Expo.

As a volunteer, Rogers has worked primarily with the grounds committee, and he has taken his turn manning a “honey wagon” and cleaning up puddles after a rain.

“Things usually start hopping right after Christmas, and we’re busy until after the show cleanup is done,” he says.

Bobby Uchita started working as a volunteer in 1972, when he came back home to farm after college. His term as chairman was in 1986.

“My dad and uncle were big supporters of the Expo, and I followed their lead. I remember loading tailwater and ditch pumps in the pickup to take to the show to move the water,” he laughs.

Like most volunteers, Uchita has filled many roles. He currently is serving on the International Agri-Center personnel committee, assisting with staffing issues and operational items, such as insurance.

“Our paid staff and management do a really great job — they’re a quality staff,” says Uchita, who notes that there have been only four show managers in the 42 year history of the Expo, a reflection of its stability.

“Each manager has taken the Expo to a higher plateau,” Uchita says. His goal is to continue to improve the quality of the event. “Hopefully, we can keep on coming up with new and exciting things,” he says.

While the Expo is geared to those in the agricultural industry, Uchita says it also plays a secondary role in helping the public to understand agriculture and what it means to America.

The show is an exhausting event for the 1,200 volunteers. “One of the questions we get most often as volunteers is, how does the orange jacket crew do this year after year and never wear out?” Watte says.

“Everyone is tired when it’s all over, but they all come back each year — because World Ag Expo is Tulare County.”

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