Lane and Clay Close were hopping back and forth among the green machines in Ag-Power’s vendor space Thursday evening at the Missouri State Fair. The brothers, ages 9 and 13, were checking out the view from the driver’s seat of balers, loaders, tractors and other John Deere vehicles.
“They bypass the carnival and come straight to the machinery,” said their father, Bob Close, who raises cattle near Green Ridge.
The Close boys are not alone in turning the rows of farm machinery into an agricultural playground. It is common to see kids climbing on the machines and resting in the shade under high-clearance rigs. But for vendors, the fair is a chance to display new equipment, connect with existing customers and build new relationships to help grow their business.
Tye Jones, of Jones Bros. Agri Service in La Monte and Centerview, said his family’s business has displayed corrals, chutes and other livestock equipment at the fair for the past five years, but their connection to the fair started decades ago.
“We’ve been coming to the fair since our grandma brought us when we were little kids,” he said. “We’ve had many years coming to the fair and enjoying it, seeing the people, and now that we have gone into business it was a natural transition to show what we do, to get in front of a larger audience.”
Jones said making sales is beneficial, but building relationships is more valuable for his business.
“Sales is a people business,” he said. “We make some sales here but mostly it’s about relationships. It puts it in their mind; if there is something they are looking for, we can be right in front of them and explain how it works and how to use it. Then, hopefully, as they make decisions for their next year, we have laid the seeds to get them to come back in to purchase.”
Chad Mallett, territory manager for Heartland Ag of Marshall and Ames, Iowa, said everyone is “looking for a deal at the Missouri State Fair.”
“As farmers come in, if they are looking for equipment, they can get prices on anhydrous toolbars or Case sprayers, and compare us with everybody else,” Mallett said. “Every year we pick up more customers who didn’t know we sell this kind of vehicle, so it does pay to be here.”
Mallett and his crew collect information from potential clients, then schedule visits later in the year.
“We’ll go out to their farm, evaluate them and try to trade them up for some new (equipment),” he said.
Stephanie and Darren Lefevers have had their portable building offerings at the fair for the past 23 years. They are the local dealer for Premiere Portable Buildings.
“Relationships with customers is the biggest value” of setting up retail space at the fair, Stephanie said, “because there are so many who are here all 11 days and we see them on a constant basis. When you are able to talk to them, they go home and tell their friends who may be in need of your product. They will then steer them to us.”
Jones agreed: “Once you meet one family, they bring another family along, and before you know it you’ve met a lot of people. … But it’s not just about new people; a lot of our regular customers come by to visit. There is no pressure to make a sale, but we say, ‘What can we do better this next year to help you out?’”
For smaller operations, maintaining vendor space at the fair affects their day-to-day business. In past years, the Lefevers family had to close their Sedalia office during the fair, with Stephanie returning at the end of each day to catch up on the workload. This year is the first they will be able to run both sites during the fair’s 11-day schedule.
“We have had years where sold 25 buildings, and others where we sold two,” Lefevers said. “This is always a very positive experience for us. Because we are local, we know so many people out here – and I love to talk.”
Jones Bros. is set up near the cattle barns and the Coliseum, away from the other agriculture vendors.
“We chose this location because we are kind of by ourselves, and we have the only shade trees on the entire fairgrounds,” Jones said with a smile. “We sell livestock equipment, a lot of cattle equipment. Well, everybody in the cattle barns has to pass us when they go out to enjoy the fair, so we figure they have to see us either coming or going.”
The space doesn’t come cheap, and there is the investment of time as well. Most vendors put in 10- to 12-hour days with no guarantee that they will make any sales to offset their expenses.
“The cost of being here is something we question every year,” Jones said. “’Is it really worth it?’ But we make enough relationships that we figure it’s worth it to be here – it’s an investment for the next year.”
Bob Satnan is the communications director for Sedalia School District 200.