Especially for a first-time attendee, the National Farm Machinery Show can be a bit overwhelming. Held each February in Louisville, the event eats up 1.2 million square feet of space across its three main exhibition halls at the Kentucky Exposition Center — it’s certainly a lot of ground to cover in just a few days. And most of all, you want to see the best stuff, right? New tractors, implement advancements, drone technology, tires, cattle chutes, grain bins, moisture sensors, solar panels — the NFMS typically ushers in 900 booths of innovations that are a lot of fun to explore. And a nine-hour day can fly by quickly.
It’s truly an event where people can see practical and implementable machinery for their farming operations — the production-ready tools more so than merely the “concepts.” Because it’s a free event (aside from a parking fee), it’s a place where members of the public come to better understand farming and get up close with the people and products behind our nation’s food system. It’s also a place for agricultural producers to discuss some of the industry’s most pressing needs, from the nearly two dozen seminars offered (covering topics such as global commodity markets, the state of autonomy, carbon credits, and farm machinery) to commentary over topics such as ag’s still-pressing supply chain issues.
And it’s no surprise that so much happens, 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.
“I think that is a very powerful part of why so many people come to the farm show. There’s largely a discussion about items you can implement the next day when you go home,” said Ian Cox, Executive Director of Communications for Kentucky Venues.
For some folks, this will be their first time at the show. Others may be veterans of this event, which will be in its 56th year. Most people are likely wondering what, if any, significant changes are going to be seen at the 2022 because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Like most other industry trade shows, NFMS was canceled in 2021, but this year, the event expects to sling-shot back into place, holding onto many of the expectations people have had in previous years. Cox said that more than 94 percent of the exhibit space has been sold.
It won’t feel in any way like things have been scaled back.
“We’re just now getting have the larger discussions about growing and improving versus recovering and dealing with crisis,” Cox said.
Like in 2020, the walkup to 2022 started with attendee registration, however, that switched last month to being voluntary in the interest helping create a seamless entry to the show floor — after all, long, clustered lines to check registration and IDs isn’t optimal when trying to minimize people’s proximity during the pandemic. The state of Kentucky has a mask mandate in indoor public settings, and because the Kentucky Exposition Center is a state-owned property, it is obligated to comply. There will be signage about masks on site, and hand sanitizer will be readily available. The facility is also accredited on being able to manage infectious diseases and reduce transmission.
But even in a typical year, this event is a major undertaking. 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 central 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, pickup 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.
“This hits on an opportunity to see new exhibitors, some that are small business, which are standing next to others like Kubota and New Holland,” Cox said.
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 give you as much time as you need.
And coming off a 2021 when this event was on hiatus, there’s a renewed enthusiasm among the vendors. Everyone who’s here took the year off to evaluate where they wanted to be and what audiences they wanted to reach. The ones who are at NFMS really want to be here and connect with attendees. Their presence is more purposeful this year.
The expo floor closes each day, February 16 through 19, at 5 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 so old it was no longer easy to pull them out of school for a days-long stretch. 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!
Ryan Tipps is the founder and managing editor of AGDAILY. The Indiana native has a master’s degree in Agriculture and Life Sciences from Virginia Tech and has covered the food and farming industries at the state and national levels since 2011.