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Optimism thrives at World Ag Expo

Visions of bees and almonds danced through the heads of farmers Joe Romance Sr. and Jr., as the farmer-son duo opened their wallets during the 2010 World Ag Expo in Tulare, Calif.

“We just bought two Hummerbee forklifts (at Expo) which are specialty forklifts for beekeepers,” said the smiling Joe Sr., a beekeeper in Minot, N.D.

The Romances marched their way across the Expo grounds to the Nelson Manufacturing Co. exhibit. They unlatched a side panel to peak at the innards of a Nelson Hardie orchard sprayer for possible use on Joe Jr.’s almond operation near Bakersfield, Calif.

The Romances were among a growing fold of optimistic farmers this year in the buying or “seriously considering” mode at Expo. Farmers at last year’s event kept a tighter grip on their wallets amid the still-unfolding economic depression. This year’s mood spewed more optimism that U.S. agriculture has weathered the financial storm and the rebound is underway.

Amid a mix of rain and partly sunny skies, typical farm show weather, the 43rd annual World Ag Expo, the world’s largest farm exposition, was held at the International Agri-Center Feb. 9-11.

The 2.6 million square foot show (about 60 acres) draws about 100,000 visitors annually from nearly 70 countries, plus about 2,000 dedicated, orange-vested volunteers.

Bruce Shannon, national sales manager, Nikkel Iron Works, says “decision makers” spent quality time at the company’s Darf hay rake and Schmeiser implement displays.

“They came here with an agenda to see a Darf hay rake or a Schmeiser land plane,” Shannon said.

The recession sliced the company’s hay rake sales by about one-third following a sharp fall from record-setting Western alfalfa prices as the result of lower milk prices which reduced cow numbers and shaved dairy feed budgets.

“When alfalfa (hay) prices reached $240-$250 a ton our equipment sales were off the chart because growers were making good money,” Shannon said. “Prices have now settled back to what I think is about normal.”

Shannon exhibits at World Ag Expo to showcase the company’s equipment, survey customers about what equipment the company should offer, and glean ways to improve equipment currently on the market.

“Helping growers become better businessmen and improve their bottom lines eventually increases our bottom line,” Shannon said.

Shannon noted a positive uptick in equipment sales over the last month.

“I think we’ve turned the corner on the downturn,” Shannon said. “Even though milk prices aren’t what they were in 2008 and early 2009, they have inched up.”

This year’s Expo was prefaced by two weeks of much welcomed “liquid manna from heaven” rains. More manna fell the first day of Expo which dampened the crowd attendance, but still drew serious buyers.

“We’ve had several inquiries; some are suspects instead of prospects,” chuckled exhibitor Jerry Welker after several hours of sporadic rainfall. “We’re looking for a few specific customers; somebody who needs what we have from our niche business.”

Welker, founder and president of Kimco Mfg., Inc., Fresno, Calif., has exhibited at Expo for 30 years.

Welker’s available wares included in-row mowers and tillers for vineyard and orchard use, a cotton picker lower drum cleaner, plus a skirter to remove lower branches from high-density-planted olive trees prior to mechanical harvesting.

The recession has not reduced Kimco’s equipment sales, Welker says, but changing grape prices could temper sales.

“Overall I’m optimistic and think we’ll have a very busy 2010,” Welker said.

Riding the shuttle tram on the fairgrounds was Jerry Minatre, a California rice grower from Verona in Sutter County. He referred to his third Expo visit as a “mini vacation.” A one-pass tillage system caught Minatre’s eye. He has purchased sprayer parts at previous expos.

International farmers from about 70 countries attended the world’s largest farm show including Abdul Jabbar Khan Kakar and Kazim Khan who traveled 30 hours from Pakistan to attend.

“We want to look at new farm machinery including tractors, cultivators, sprayers, and other equipment,” said Kakar, chief executive with Al-Akhuwath Enterprise. The Killa Abdullah-based company grows, imports, and exports fruits and vegetables.

On Kakar’s farm, apple yields average about 20 tons-per-acre and 10-20 tons/acre for processing tomatoes. Typical challenges include pest and disease issues. Crop soils range from sand to clay textures. Unlike the Western United States, water supplies are abundant for Pakistani agriculture.

Khan grows fruit and vegetables near Balochistan, Pakistan. His ongoing focus is simple. “We want to replace traditional plant varieties with imported varieties to gain improved yields,” Khan said.

Khan’s table grape operation includes about 500 plants per acre. Yields average about 8 kilograms per plant (about 17 pounds); about one-third to one-half less than U.S. yields, he says.

Khan hopes to export organic cherries to Western countries in the future. He currently loses about 40 percent of his crops after harvest due to the lack of a processing industry.

Among the Expo exhibitors showcasing the latest and greatest precision agriculture products was Topcon Precision Agriculture’s Senior Vice President Albert Zahalka.

Among Topcon’s newer offerings at Expo included the AES-25 electric steering kit which can steer equipment within one-half-inch accuracy, plus CropSpec which uses a camera and software to measure the nutrient levels in leaves.

While steering solutions have traditionally been incorporated in new tractor packages, Zahalka says steering guidance systems are now sold to farmers for currently-owned equipment. Growers are seeing an immediate payback.

More than 40 satellites currently provide signals to precisely steer farm equipment. Additional satellites will soon increase accuracy even more.

Telematics is the major technological advancement under development for agriculture and other industries, Zahalka says. “Telematics utilization of GPS is the future way for agriculture. Telematics is the largest industry growth segment worldwide right now.”

Telematics is currently used in the automobile industry, for example, to self-park a Mercedes automobile.

“This technology will allow a farmer using a farm management system in an office to operate farm equipment autonomously (no driver) plus manage nutrient, water, and seed needs,” Zahalka said.

Developing telematics in agriculture is very expensive; in part since farming is a relatively small market and has unique requirements.

“The advantage in agriculture is we can fence an area off to experiment with autonomous vehicles with relative safety,” Zahalka said. “You can’t do that on the highway.”

Zahalka predicts autonomously-driven farm equipment will be on the market in about 10 years.

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