February holds a special place in the hearts of agricultural producers in southern Alberta, and we’re not talking about Valentine’s Day.
It does represent a kind of love, however — in this case, the love farmers have towards the latest, shiniest new farm equipment.
And just as it has for over 100 years, it can be seen at Lethbridge’s Ag Expo, one of Alberta’s oldest and most popular agricultural shows. Organizers are expecting at least 20,000 people to come through the gates of Lethbridge Exhibition Park during the equipment exhibition and seed fair’s Feb. 24-26 run.
“People come to Ag Expo to see the ‘new cars’ of machinery — the newest innovations in equipment and seed development,” said Doug Kryzanowski, manager of corporate relations, marketing, events and entertainment with Lethbridge Exhibition Park.
“The people coming through — 20,000 strong — know what they’re looking for. That’s how seasoned a show it is.”
Putting on Ag Expo means facing some ongoing challenges, not the least of which is accommodating a growing number of exhibitors in the park’s 200,000 square feet while still maintaining a standard of variety.
“We have a turnover list of anywhere from 30 to 40 every year and a waiting list of 50 to 60 every year,” said Kryzanowski. “That’s a shift of 100 people to get every exhibitor in.”
A newer challenge is a softening in the farm equipment market due to the lagging Canadian dollar. However, Kryzanowski is confident that this will be offset by Americans looking for a deal.
“Being only an hour away from the U.S. border gives us a geographical advantage,” he said. “Northern Montana is very strong in agriculture and we’ve always had good representation from there and parts of Idaho.”
Ag Expo is “kind of like an economic barometer” for the Lethbridge area, he added.
“If people are spending money at the show it’s a good sign the community is in strong economic condition. This area doesn’t get hit as hard as other parts of Alberta when the oil and gas industry is in decline because we’re primarily farm and ranch. I would call it the perfect storm with us having some good crops here and the dollar being the way it is. It’s probably going to be a pretty good show for most of the exhibitors.”
The seeds of Ag Expo were planted all the way back in 1897 with the North American Seed Fair. The World Farming Congress started in Lethbridge around the same time.
“Both just kind of morphed into one another,” said Kryzanowski. “It’s had many names over the years but it’s been Ag Expo since at least the mid-1970s.”
Having enough space to accommodate interested exhibitors has been a challenge over the past several years.
“We’re short of space but the show keeps getting bigger,” he said. “We have probably 100,000 square feet outside where we park grain bins and most of the big equipment but if it’s a cold and miserable day — and it often is in February — that’s not always the most comfortable for visitors and exhibitors.”
Ag Expo attendees have tended to be a hardy lot, however.
“They’ll come from Swift Current or Cranbrook in a blizzard.”
Other Lethbridge attractions also help bring people to the city for the event.
“Because we have a Costco, people from the east side of B.C. often stay in Lethbridge for two or three days to go shopping, maybe conduct some other business, and take in Ag Expo,” said Kryzanowski.
Lethbridge Exhibition Park has a couple of redevelopment plans on the table, including a convention centre which would create more space for Ag Expo and other exhibition events. However, Kryzanowski does not see these getting off the ground in the next few years.
“We’re looking at an indefinite period of time before we make an expansion,” he said.
The North American Seed Fair is one of Western Canada’s oldest seed fairs and one of only a few left in North America. Although the fair typically receives fewer entries than it has in the past, Kryzanowski said the seed fair committee tries to keep it vital by focusing on education.
“About 20 to 30 per cent of the people who go to Ag Expo are urban, so it’s an education for them to see how people seeded and tilled in the past,” he said.
Although the show typically averages about 50 seed exhibitors every year, it attracted hundreds at its peak. Kryzanowski points to a couple of reasons for this decline. “A lot of corporations are buying out the smaller seed plants and seed fairs are not a priority for them. Also, sometimes producers forget to set aside some of their seed in the fall for the February show. It’s not always the best timing for them.”