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The pandemic has created some uncertainty about the future of farm shows

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The pandemic has created uncertainty about many things - of course, you know this - but we want to take a closer look at another one of its effects on parts of rural America because there's a bit of uneasiness surrounding annual farm shows. That's where farmers head to convention centers and exhibition halls to check out the latest technology and connect with fellow producers. Jonathan Ahl of St. Louis Public Radio reports on the future of this staple in agricultural life.

JONATHAN AHL, BYLINE: Dozens of farmers and their families are walking among the giant combines, tractors and other farm equipment that can cost up to a half a million dollars each. This is the scene at the Ag Expo in Sedalia, Mo. Local corn and soybean farmer Bill Taylor loves it. He says it's a low-pressure way to check out a lot of different things.

BILL TAYLOR: If you want to talk to a guy, you can. If you want to walk by, you can. And that's what we like about - there's a little bit of everything here. I mean, we got anything from siding to gutters to tractor tires, fertilizer buggies, livestock equipment.

AHL: Like most farm shows, this one was canceled last year over COVID concerns. This year, it's back in full force. But some farm shows across the country canceled again, and others just went online. Danny Young is a rural banker who loans to farmers and is on the planning commission of Sedalia's farm show.

DANNY YOUNG: A lot of farmers - they're hands-on kind of people. They don't really want to sit in front of a computer or something and do it virtually. They want to get out of the house. They want to go to town. They want to touch the machinery. They want to talk to the people. And it's not a real virtual clientele.

AHL: But many in the ag business think virtual connections might be the future and the in-person farm show doesn't have much life left.

JIM MANDES: We were well on this path, and just COVID kind of proved the point to a lot of people.

AHL: Jim Mandes is a sales manager with Krone, maker of machines for hay production like mowers and balers. He says with consolidations every year, there are fewer farmers to sell to, and most are tech savvy enough to research big purchases on their own.

MANDES: They know more about what they're buying than they did 20 years ago, 10 years ago, three years ago. The relevance of a trade show - physically seeing machines and talking to reps - is not what it once was.

AHL: While businesses may be looking for more bang for their buck at farm shows, the towns that host them say the money is only part of the narrative. They say the shows are just as much about community, identity and a full embrace of the farming lifestyle.

JOCK HEDBLADE: There's a morale element to it, too.

AHL: Jock Hedblade heads the Macomb Area Convention and Visitors Bureau in west central Illinois. Macomb canceled its Ag Mech Show for the second year in a row because of COVID. Hedblade says not having the town be the focus of regional farm life is more than just a financial hit of not selling hotel rooms and meals to visitors. And while he's confident the Ag Mech Show will return to Macomb next year, he's not sure every show will survive.

HEDBLADE: Some of these towns won't be able to recoup these types of shows. I think that's because it loses a little momentum, that, you know, sometimes these are volunteers that put these together, and it's hard to keep people involved and their interest in these things.

AHL: But the doom and gloom about the future of farm shows doesn't play in Sedalia. Despite the show coming on the heels of a major snowstorm in central Missouri, organizers say attendance was strong. And Danny Young says the demand from farmers is still there.

YOUNG: We visited with several of them yesterday and kind of asked them the same question. And they said they hope that we continue having the farm show because they enjoy getting out and getting to see the machinery, seeing people that are in the same business they are in. They act like they want to see them continue, so we plan to keep having them.

AHL: And Young says farmers are used to riding out tough times, and he hopes that the pandemic's hold on their beloved farm shows presents only a temporary setback.

For NPR News, I'm Jonathan Ahl.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARIEL POSEN'S "BEGIN AGAIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.