Especially for a first-time attendee, the National Farm Machinery Show can be a bit overwhelming. Held each February in Louisville (for 2023, it is Feb. 15 through 18), 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 around 1,500 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 moreso than merely the “concepts.” Because it’s a free event (aside from a $12/day 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 destination 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 is now in its 57th year. Most people are likely wondering what, if any, significant changes are going to be seen at the 2023 show, especially now that most restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic are behind us. Like many other industry trade shows, NFMS was canceled in 2021, but since then, the event has done a lot to sling-shot back into place, holding onto many of the expectations people have had in previous years. For 2023, all of the exhibit space has been sold.
In recent years, the show organizers dabbled with the idea of attendee registration, but it never really took off. They had said that the intent was to collect feedback and understand attendees’ business needs, so as to allow exhibitors a chance to evaluate the equipment they bring based on who is attending the show and why. Last year, the registration approach went from “required” to “voluntary” about a month before NFMS, and now for 2023, the official event website makes no mention of registration at all.
Another shift from the 2022 show happened in the fall. This past October, the state of Kentucky stopped enforcing its mask mandate in indoor public settings, which is notable since the Kentucky Exposition Center is a state-owned property and it was obligated to comply with masking policies.
How to get started at NFMS
But even prior to all of the disruptions and difficulties related to the pandemic, this event was 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 exhibit hall. It’s here that you’ll likely stumble across brands that you’ve never heard of before, and all of them being at the same event offers a great opportunity for side-by-side comparisons.
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.
“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.
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 or a bit later than normal 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.
Make the most of your time
And coming off a 2021 when this event was on hiatus, 2022 saw a renewed enthusiasm among the vendors — something that’s likely to carry over now into 2023. Everyone who’s here spent the hiatus year evaluating where they wanted to be and what audiences they wanted to reach. The ones who are now at NFMS really want to be here and connect with attendees. Their presence is more purposeful.
The expo floor closes each day, February 15 through 18, 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 main 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 those who attended NFMS prior to the pandemic and used the NFMS Events app in Google Play or the Apple Store, unfortunately, that app is no longer active. It was a great resource, featuring an interactive exhibitor map, listings, seminars, speakers, Championship Tractor Pull schedule, and Louisville-area information. Still, there is an abundance of printed event booklets being handed to help you navigate your way through this super-sized event.
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 that 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.