Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show
Commencing from humble beginnings in rural southwestern Ontario in 1994, Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show recently wrapped up its successful 22nd annual event, held each September at the University of Guelph’s research farm in Woodstock, Ontario. What has become known throughout the agricultural industry as a ‘one-stop shop’ for farmers was by all accounts bigger and better than ever.
The three-day farming extravaganza is without doubt the nation’s premier outdoor agricultural showcase. This year sunny, clear skies provided a wonderful backdrop for the 750 exhibitors and 43,200 attendees who were able to witness first-hand the latest innovations in agriculture from a wide variety of agri-businesses spread out over more than 100 acres of rural land. Another 150 acres was set aside for various types of field demonstrations and visitor parking. International attendees included visitors from Belgium, Denmark, Netherlands, Italy, Japan, Mexico and the Consul General of India.
Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show President Doug Wagner officially got the proceedings underway on the morning of Tuesday, September 15. Among the dignitaries who participated in the opening ceremonies: Dr. Malcom Campbell, University of Guelph Vice-President (Research); Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Deb Stark; Trevor Birtch, Mayor of Woodstock; and Glacier Media President and CEO Jon Kennedy. (Glacier Media owns the parent company of Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show).
The Canadian Business Journal was at COFS and had an opportunity to catch a birds-eye view of the goings-on and also to speak with Wagner at the event, and again soon after its conclusion.
“We are very pleased that 43,200 people attended the show, especially since many farmers were in the middle of harvest and still managed to take a day to come and see the latest innovations in agriculture,” he says.
It was Wagner and a man named Ginty Jocius who forged a business alliance and are largely credited with getting COFS off the ground with that inaugural show in 1994 and 200 exhibitors and advancing it to the stage it is at today with 750 exhibitors. It has been thanks to their tireless efforts and dedicated staff members who have turned this marquee event into a resounding success. As with any large trade show, a significant amount of debt was accrued in that first year and Wagner remembers very well how difficult it was to secure any type of meaningful financing.
“Ginty pretty much financed the whole thing himself,” Wagner reveals. “It was tough to get anybody to give us much credit in the first four or five years but we got over those hurdles.”
For people involved in the agriculture industry, the name Ginty Jocius is extremely well known. He was viewed as an entrepreneurial visionary who always did what he could to advance the agricultural sector in the eyes of the public and government. He was named Agri-Marketer of the Year by the Canadian Agri-Marketing Association (CAMA) and Alumnus of Honour by the University of Guelph in 1996. Jocius was a tireless campaigner in the political arenas, at both the federal and local levels. He died in 2008 at the age of 61. A memorial waterfall at COFS has been named in his honour.
Jocius and Wagner set up the first three Canadian Outdoor Farms Shows in Burford, Ontario but an opportunity presented itself to lease space at the nearby University of Guelph Woodstock Research Station. The move took place in 1997, and this year’s event marked the 20th show at the Woodstock location.
“We have had a very good relationship with the University of Guelph over the past 20 years. With their expertise, they’ve been a tremendous asset especially with their field demonstration plots and they certainly help us manage all of our fields since they have that equipment,” Wagner says.
It is obvious that one of the main staples that make COFS so successful is the incredible passion and enthusiasm Wagner and the rest of his team have for what they do. In fact, they are one of the few Ag-Trade Shows that goes to other major trade shows in Ontario and they’ve also been to a few in the United States and one in Hanover, Germany just a few years ago, which yielded fantastic results.
“That exposed our show to more international companies that may be marketing their products into Ontario given that there is a significant European heritage in southern Ontario. All of those things have helped to grow our own show,” Wagner explains.
Before launching Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show, Wagner was in communication with two of Ontario’s larger farm organizations. The Ontario Federation of Agriculture, which came on as a supporter had about 58,000 farm families as members at the time. The Ontario Soil Crop, with about 55 organizations across the province, has a mandate of crop production and soil management.
“Those two were natural to have as part of the show and they came on as supporters. We had a lot of buy-in from farmers through those organizations” he says.
In the early formative years there wasn’t a whole lot of support from mainline farm machinery companies, with most instead opting to watch the proceedings from the sidelines. However, it didn’t take long for those big players to join in once they saw how well-received it was by the farming community.
“Once they all came onboard they became big supporters,” Wagner notes.
Kubota was in fact one of the few mainline farm machinery companies that has supported Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show from the outset. The company has also had a vision for the past few years to build a structure on COFS site. They have expanded operations and recently purchased a tillage company and are also making hay for the dairy industry. The large Kubota building on the show’s site is going to be used as a training centre over the next couple of years for production introductions and how new equipment functions. They will also have the ability to take field technicians out and teach them how to repair some mechanical issues on the fly.
“They are becoming a mainline tractor company and the building onsite is a prototype of what they’re hoping their dealer groups will build. They made it energy efficient and easy to build,” Wagner says.
Much like other business industries, the culture of farming has evolved considerably over the past two decades. The farm unit number is progressively getting smaller but overall the consensus is that there are quite likely as many people still involved. A farm unit 20 years ago might have supported one family and now it might support five or six families.
“Just like any industry that is being reinvented it does a better job of what it was set out to do. I think Canadian farmers are open to technology from anywhere in the world that can make them more efficient and maybe make their workday a little easier,” Wagner says.
COFS is not only a great platform to showcase to the farmers but it’s become the entry point for many exhibitors, who look to set up dealer groups, to which the show is a perfectly-positioned catalyst. The trade division of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Economic Development Canada have also enhanced their participation and actively encourage the exhibitors at the Canadian Outdoor Farm Show to export their goods and services overseas as opposed to goods and services coming into Ontario while at the same time increasing the profile of the event. It can’t help but to encourage more trade in both directions.
“Our field demonstrations are huge and our crop plots are an integral part of the show right on the site,” Wagner says. “Farmers get to see those crops just before harvest right at their feet on the show site with all the hype and sales reps that goes with it.”
After an unusually dry August in Ontario, the harvest came a little earlier than usual this year so many farmers turned up for the show and stayed for a few hours in the morning to see the specific exhibits that most interested them, and then they’d be back on the farms for the afternoon harvest.
Despite some rather unsettled and unnerving weather in previous years, farmers and exhibitors love the COFS because of its outdoor setting, which allows for much more indepth product demonstrations. The popular ride-and-drive event with Ram and Toyota trucks was once again a big hit, giving attendees a chance to take the vehicles out on the road. A corn stock baling demonstration was also back this year, with several companies participating instead of last year’s individual demonstration.
Many meetings took place between Wagner and his team and the exhibitors to get everything in order. Pulling a show together of such magnitude can present many logistical nightmares, but Wagner and his dedicated staff and volunteers pull it off successfully year after year due to a well-devised plan and a lot of hard work.
“We didn’t get to where we are overnight,” Wagner admits. “We do have a group of exhibitors that help us put together the Dairy Innovation Centre. That is a huge project when you consider we host 60 cows for 10 days and it has to be fully operational. We can offer a better presentation to the farmers collectively than we can as individuals and the Dairy Innovation Centre is a prime example of that.”
Volunteers for COFS are also in integral aspect of the overall success. The community of Woodstock along with 37 Lions Clubs help out in preparing food for the attendees and for hospitality both during and after the show. The Lions Club brings in about 250 people, some of whom are there all week to get everything properly organized and others will assist by taking four-hour shifts. COFS also has groups that help with traffic flow, parking, the front gates and picking up garbage. A group from nearby Paris, Ontario has handled the ticketing aspect since the show started in Burford 22 years ago.
“At any given time we have more than 100 people working for us and if you add it up collectively over the five days, there could be almost 400 people that have helped out. Those community groups are obviously doing some fundraising and we pay them an hourly rate. People donate their time and the cash goes back to their organizations, which allows them to generate a lot of money in a very short period of time,” Wagner says.
A key factor that really sets COFS apart from many other agricultural shows is the level of field and crop-plot demonstrations and the fact they are outdoors, where they can provide live demonstrations in terms of what is happening in the fields and also how some of the new technological machinery operates. Woodstock Chief Administrative Officer David Creery told Wagner that he knows when the show is on because it essentially doubles the size of the town. Some of the local retailers call it ‘Christmas in Woodstock’ during the week because of the tremendous impact on the local economy. Wagner is exceedingly proud that the show has elevated itself alongside the very elite on this continent.
“We’re one of the five largest outdoor Agriculture trade shows in North America, along with ones in California, Georgia, Ohio and Iowa. Those shows have up to 800 exhibitors and I’m quite pleased that we are in that group of five,” he says.
It is Wagner’s hope that the show continues as a unifying catalyst in presenting new technology to agriculture. A prime example this year was the colossal Dairy Innovation Centre (DIC). In addition to a live robotic showcase, the DIC had a marvellously assembled new digital product showcase. The front of the DIC was headlined by a gigantic 9-foot by 15-foot television screen, capable of streaming dairy pictures, videos and product information provided by the many companies involved with the barn. COFS responded with the introduction of a brand new dairy exhibit called the Dairy Pavilion. The 3,000 square-foot Dairy Pavilion allows several new dairy exhibitors to be part of the show.
“We were the early adapters of robotic milking techniques in 2000, and it is now relatively accepted. We’re told that 80% of the new barns being designed are probably going to have robots in them. I think over the long run if our show is able to maintain its rapport with the industry and continue to exist in being able to present this new technology to farmers then I think we’re going to continue seeing Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show as the key place where new technology is presented and hopefully accepted,” Wagner says.
During CBJ’s discussion with staff members inside the main office of COFS, several inquiries were made about how to go about becoming an exhibitor for next year’s show. While there is still room to squeeze in a few more exhibits in various areas, Wagner believes the show is currently at the optimal size.
“In my opinion I think our show is large enough,” Wagner candidly says. “Most farmers come for one day but we are getting more and more who come for two days. If you want to talk with 20 or 30 exhibitors and have a good discussion that would be hard to do in a five-hour day. But I would say that we are expanding the feel of our show and we’ve just launched a similar show called Ag In Motion, just west of Saskatoon.”
Despite the fact the final wrap-up has just been completed for this year’s show, plans are already afoot in the form of discussions in terms of what will be on display at the 23rd edition of Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show, to be held September 13-16, 2016.
Wagner says, “As the ideas get pared down we will have a meeting either late in the fall or early in the spring where anybody that wants to participate in those field demonstrations, we get them together in a room in Woodstock and discuss plans for 2016.”