Especially for a first-time attendee, the National Farm Machinery Show can be a bit overwhelming. Held each February in Louisville, Kentucky, the event eats up 1.2 million square feet of space across its three main exhibition halls — it’s certainly a lot of ground to cover in just a few days. And most of all, you want to see all the best stuff, right? New tractors, implement advancements, drone technology, tires, cattle chutes, grain bins, moisture sensors, solar panels — the NFMS has 900 booths of innovations that are a lot of fun to explore. And a nine-hour day can fly by quickly.
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The 2020 show is already starting off a bit differently than in years past, thanks to the addition of attendee registration. Aside from parking, the show has long been free, and people came and went pretty much as they pleased. Now, registration, which includes questions about what part of the ag industry you’re in and whether you have the authority to make purchasing decisions for an operation, is a factor. And it’s no surprise, considering that NFMS is the largest indoor farm show in the nation and consistently draws more than 300,000 visitors. Yup, that figure is not a typo. It’s quite amazing.
So how does a person take it all in, handle the crowds, and maintain his or her sanity? I’m glad you asked.
I’ve been at the National Farm Machinery Show for the past several years and have found a routine for seeing it all. I prefer to do an initial walk-through when I arrive, getting a sense of who has items that I haven’t seen before. The major manufacturers, such as John Deere, Kubota, Mahindra, and Kinze have footprints that are reliably in the same place and in the same wing every year. You can usually catch a glimpse of their prominent signage from across the room. Companies with smaller booths, however, are situated into neat and even rows usually in the center of the room. It’s here that you’ll likely stumble across brands that you’ve never heard of before. I keep a particularly open mind during this part of the walk, because this is where I often come across something that I’ve never even considered before and is of surprising value to farmers and ranchers (like this example or this one).
As you meander through the Kentucky Exposition Center, it’s easy to spot the South Wing (the largest) and the adjacent North Wing. But be sure that your visit takes you around the food court toward the arena where the Championship Tractor Pull is being held. Snaking through those corridors (just follow the crowds) will pop you out into the West Wing. This area has a bit more of a “warehousey” feel to it, but don’t let that deter you from exploring it. There are just as many great companies nestled in this section of the venue. The lower ceilings mean that it won’t be packed with large ag tractors, but there will be tool companies, livestock companies, truck manufacturers, utility-vehicle makers, and many others to see.
During it all, be sure to take a notepad and a pen to write down which booths you might want to go back to.
At whatever point you get hungry, the main food court with several restaurant stands celebrating Kentucky-grown food is centrally located, as are other food booths scattered throughout the venue. The food court gets jam-packed around lunchtime, so be prepared to sit at a table with people you don’t know (yes, it’s a good way to meet other farmers!). If you traveled to Louisville with a big group, plan on eating lunch a bit earlier than normal or a bit later in order to snag a table that can fit everybody.
There are smaller dining setups in the West Wing and further down the South Wing.
By now, you should have your bearings, and, hopefully, you’ve spotted a few booths that interest you. Afternoons are a great time to go back to those booths and chat with product managers, sales people, and other staffers. Anecdotally, I’d say mornings tend to see the booths a little more crowded, especially at the larger companies. During the afternoons, though, things seem to slow down a bit. Perhaps part of the reason is just people kicking back and letting that hearty lunch they just enjoyed digest a bit. Journalists tend to be holed away writing about what they’ve seen in the morning. Companies are restocking their brochures and other marketing materials.
For you, it usually means less time fighting to catch the attention of a booth rep — and it’s a good time to get in there and really ask questions about the products and services that caught your eye. That’s why you’re really there, after all.
Take your time and enjoy this part of the show. There’s no question too small or too out of your comfort zone to ask — the people working these booths have heard it all. And they want to put their best foot forward, so they will get you as much time as you need.
The event closes each day, February 12 through 15, at 6 p.m. But before you leave, be sure to head up the stairs just outside the South Wing on the opposite end as the food court, to visit the marketplace. Most years, you can simply follow the ribbit sounds of frogs — well, musical wooden frogs a craftsman has made, that is. Also, for sale are boots and shirts, toys, bags and purses, fudge, knickknacks, and even mattresses. (That last one caught me off guard the first year I attended.)
For a little extra assistance, the NFMS has had an event app over the past few years, featuring an interactive exhibitor map, listings, seminars, speakers, Championship Tractor Pull schedule, and Louisville-area information. Look for “NFMS Events” in Google Play or the Apple Store to download it.
The National Farm Machinery Show is one of my favorite agricultural events each year, and my only regret was not bringing my kids to it before they got old enough to enter first grade. There will be lots of farmers with their families there, and it’s adorable to watch some of these little ones standing inside a Titan tire or sitting in the cab of a state-of-the-art tractor. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do, and be sure to bring some good walking shoes!