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Published: Saturday, 7/31/2004

Farm Focus attendance lagging

BY JANE SCHMUCKER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

VAN WERT, Ohio - U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman yesterday became the second federal agriculture secretary to speak at the Farm Focus agriculture show near here - and she might be the last.

Farm Focus spokesman Gary Prill said show organizers will meet next week to decide whether to continue the show, which is marking its 30th anniversary with its two-day run that ends this afternoon.

The show, northwest Ohio's only such agricultural trade fair, opened in 1974 with a speech by then-U.S. Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz. But the show is perhaps a victim of the continued trend of larger farms and fewer farmers.

Ms. Veneman addressed that trend briefly during a news conference after her speech, saying there is great diversity in the size of American farms and that legislation involving large livestock farms should be handled locally, rather than nationally.

Her 15-minute speech to about 500 people was an upbeat recap of last year's record farm income, and expectations of similar numbers this year with good crops. She credited the Bush administration's tax cuts and commitment to trade agreements, and talked about several government programs that pay farmers to conserve land and help pay for environmental measures for livestock farms.

"As President Bush often says for people who work the land, every day is Earth Day," she said.

She promised, when questioned by the audience, that the Bush administration would continue to negotiate with the World Trade Organization to protect farm subsidies, and acknowledged that this is a critical time for a trade organization decision on a cotton subsidy.

Some say the cotton subsidy is similar to programs for soybeans and other locally grown crops.

Later, speaking to reporters, she said the Agriculture Department's biggest challenge in Ohio is dealing with plant and animal diseases ranging from emerald ash borer, which has led to the destruction of forests of ash trees, to mad cow disease, which has not been found locally.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the department has spent more time monitoring the threat of intentionally planted diseases.

During her speech, the most applause came after Ms. Veneman said the biggest advantage of her travels into farm country this summer is that "not all of the wisdom is found in Washington, D.C."

"It's good to be here where I know common sense is in no short supply," she said after telling a joke about a consultant who confused a lamb and a dog.

Bobby Moser, vice president of Ohio State University's College of Food, Agriculture, and Environmental Sciences, said Ms. Veneman "covered the topics quite well" that are foremost in agriculture today.

But Edwin Kroeger, a crop adviser from Van Wert County, said Ms. Veneman's talk was foremost a re-election speech for the Bush administration.

"George Bush in a female body: That was her," he said.

Ms. Veneman spent much of her time at the show posing for pictures with everyone from FFA members to retired farmers and signing autographs.

She walked to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service booth to pose for pictures with Daniel Harpster, a veterinarian and area emergency coordinator for a five-state region.

Along the way, she shook hands with vendors selling crop insurance and drainage tile.

"I learned how to drive on a little John Deere tractor when I was a kid," she told Bruce Kennedy, general manager of the Kennedy-Kuhn Inc. John Deere dealership.

His dealership was one of 70 exhibitors at the show, down from 110 as recently as 2001

and 250 or more 15 years ago.

Farm Focus organizers are to decide next week whether to continue the show in its current form or to perhaps drop the trade fair and turn the event into a field day for farmers to talk to scientists and look at experimental crop plots.

"It's a tough decision to make," Mr. Prill said.

It's also a decision that might be made for Farm Focus.

"Vendors aren't going to come back for a crowd like this," Tom Hoersten, a representative of American Equipment Service Inc., said late in the day as he stood alone with a fellow salesman on the sparsely populated show grounds.

Mr. Hoersten, of the Grover Hill, Ohio, area, estimated he talked to about six serious customers out of about 2,500 people at the show yesterday.

At many farm shows, which draw tens of thousands of people, he said he talks to that many serious customers every hour.

He said he would not bank on coming back next year. His fellow salesman, Fred Barnes, added: "It isn't worth the time," as they watched skies that soon opened to light rain.

Forecasts call for more rain today. Mr. Prill said severe storms during last year's Farm Focus that blew down tents and damaged exhibits likely were part of the reason why fewer vendors returned to this year's show.

Committed exhibitors remain, however.

Jim Wellman, owner of Wellman Seeds Inc. near Delphos, Ohio, about 15 miles from the show site, said: "As long as they have the show, we'll be here."

Contact Jane Schmucker at

jschmucker@theblade.com or

419-724-6102.



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