According to the Illinois Department of Agriculture, about 1.5 million Illinois workers are employed in the food and fiber system, ranking it as one of the top states in dependency on agriculture. The state’s 72,500 farms utilize 75 percent of Illinois land, including some of the most fertile soil in the world. While nicknamed “The Prairie State,” Illinois is truly a land of plenty and a hub for agritourism—with some of the largest agriculture-focused events (holding the potential for major economic impact) taking place inside its borders.
In July, Global AgInvesting selected the ISA as a partner for its annual AgTech Nexus USA conference, held this year in Chicago. The event, which has also been held in San Francisco and Boston, brought together an impressive international group of investors, agribusiness executives, ag-tech entrepreneurs and farmers for discussions on the rapidly growing agriculture technology market. The Chicago event also exposed attendees to the innovations and investment opportunities surrounding the burgeoning sector that has the power to change the trajectory of the global food system.
“The value of the soybean crop coming out of the field was more than $6 billion in 2018,” says Roady. “But Illinois isn’t in the top five as far as agri-food tech investments are concerned—bringing in $182 million in 2018 compared to California’s $5 billion. By bringing entrepreneurs, investors and producers together in Chicago we’re able to convene the major players in the ag-tech ecosystem and showcase the world class assets available here.”
As Roady explains, trade, labor and markets are all being disrupted and new value is being created by ag-tech innovators working with producers and agri-food businesses. For producers there is also increasing consumer concern and scrutiny on the sourcing of their food, not to mention the continuous need to sustainably increase productivity and efficiency for growing populations. The AgTech Nexus conference featured presentations and panel discussions from industry thought leaders and forward thinkers, as well as the opportunity to gain context and clarity with exclusive farm tours and field trips. The ISA predicted more than 200 attendees, which is critical in increasing the speed of AgTech development and adoption to change the trajectory of global food production in an effort to meet the needs of a growing population.
“Everyone benefits from the connections that are formed during these gatherings of innovative minds and products and investment professionals ready to move them to market,” Roady says.
So how did Chicago earn the privilege of playing host to such an important agritourism event?
The ISA specifically reached out to AgTech Nexus USA as it’s the premier ag-tech investing event held annually in the US and it had been held on the coasts, but never in the Midwest.
“This was an opportunity to add to the efforts of others in the state of Illinois, universities, private companies and local investors and entrepreneurs to help create a thriving environment for ag-tech here,” Roady says. “By exposing our producers to the latest innovations and helping them evaluate the value provided to their farm, we’re boosting that return on investment.”
Another major agriculture event, the Midwest Ag Industries Exposition (MAGIE) 2019, was also recently held in the Bloomington-Normal area in August. According to Jean Payne, president of the Illinois Fertilizer & Chemical Association, MAGIE attracts approximately 2,500 attendees each year, the majority being those involved in the commercial nutrient and crop protection application and equipment business. Although most attendees are from Midwestern states, MAGIE also attracts people from Canada, the East Coast, Texas and California. For the Bloomington-Normal area the impact is significant. The exhibitors at the MAGIE show often stay for three to four full days, buy items locally for their exhibits and take their customers out to dinner locally during the show.
According to Crystal Howard, president and CEO of the Bloomington-Normal Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Bloomington-Normal CVB office reached out to MAGIE in 2003 to host the event at the McLean County Fairgrounds.
“We were delighted they said yes and have had a great working relationship since then. MAGIE typically attracts more than 2,000 attendees, representing approximately 600 hotel rooms. This event has an estimated economic impact of $191,000 to Bloomington-Normal,” Howard says. “This includes lodging, food service, entertainment and retail. When visitors stay in our community and state they are infusing new money through the taxes they pay.”
“The Bloomington-Normal CVB has been instrumental in us moving the MAGIE show from Danville, Illinois, where we had been for 20 years, to Bloomington in 2004,” Payne says. “They’ve helped sponsor the event’s exhibitor welcome party and provide information about the local area to our show attendees. They also assist with coordinating with hotels to assure reasonable accommodations for MAGIE attendees.”
For Howard, agriculture-related events in central Illinois continue to be educational due to consistent new technology. “Our location also plays a role in boosting attendance,” Howard says. “Our community benefits as do other central Illinois communities.”
The annual Farm Progress Show, the nation’s largest outdoor farm event, hosts more than 600 exhibitors displaying new farm equipment, tractors, combines and farm implements; seed and crop protection products; and many additional farm supplies and services each year. Entering its 66th year, the show—which draws roughly 160,000 attendees over three days—was recently held in Decatur, Illinois.
As Matt Jungmann, director of trade shows at Farm Progress, explains, producers from the U.S. and around the world attend this industry-leading agricultural event. Ag manufacturers and suppliers from across the country and around the world are exhibitors.
Field demonstrations are a show mainstay and include side-by-side tillage techniques, GPS and precision equipment, and tractor and combine performance comparisons. Live cattle-handling demonstrations include the newest cattle chutes, equipment, animal health products and work techniques when the event is held in Boone, Iowa. Additionally, the show features restored antique machinery and entertainment.
“The three-day event provides an unparalleled learning opportunity for producers to keep up-to-date on the newest agricultural equipment, products, services and technologies,” Jungmann says. “A wide variety of marketing, management and production seminars are also available to attendees.”
The Decatur Area Convention & Visitors Bureau works with the Farm Progress Show by taking care of international visitors and all of their needs as well as hosting various exhibitor receptions.
“This show is an amazing event for not only the Decatur/Forsyth area, but surrounding areas as well,” says Teri Hammel, executive director of the Decatur Area CVB. “With over 9,000 room nights around the area it touches communities like Champaign, Bloomington, Springfield, Shelbyville and Monticello as well as Decatur and Forsyth. At the 2018 show we had an excellent year with an increase of around 7 percent growth over prior years, with final attendance around 181,000.”
The Decatur CVB facilitates a vendor dinner with sponsorship from the City of Decatur and The Village of Forsyth. They also host an international visitor area with phone charging stations, refreshments and information on locations within the show as well as interpreters provided by the University of Illinois and some locals from the Decatur/Forsyth area. “We help with transportation from the Village of Forsyth Mall to and from the show as well as one from downtown Decatur,” Hammel says. “Embassy letters are sent assisting international guest attendance for the show as well.”
The Farm Progress Show is a huge economic impact to the entire state. Before and after the show visitors travel throughout the state to make the most of their trip, especially if they are traveling from other countries.
“We’ve had guests attend from as many as 59 different countries,” Hammel says. “We use a per-room night formula for visitors, and it’s guesstimated that for 9,000 room nights more or less, it is close to $2,160,000 for a hotel room, a meal and a tank of gas, and that’s not counting the rooms used to build the location in the month before the show or the time it takes to tear it all down.”
Benefits and Challenges Aplenty
Meetings and events that bring new technology to the agri-food space are also proving to be critical for consumers—from both a supply and quality standpoint.
“Rural communities in the Midwest are supported by agriculture—a trade show that keeps their growers on the cutting edge and profitable is critical to the entire rural economy,” Jungmann says.
Roady agrees. “We’re feeding and clothing 7.7 billion people globally now, and need to be able to feed and clothe an estimated 9.7 billion people by 2050,” Roady says. “There’s no new ground to tread, so we need to increase production and reduce waste while minimizing environmental impacts.”
What’s more, nutrition is a personal issue for consumers, so transparency in how food is raised and brought to the table is increasingly important.
“Expectations remain high around appearance, taste and ingredients, but nutrition and sustainability considerations continue to gain importance,” Roady says. “By providing influencers and others in the agri-food space with early exposure to new concepts, we can do a better job of building trust in how food and ingredients are grown and raised.”
The impact of agritourism is top of mind for many meeting and event planners. For instance, the value for attendees of AgTech Nexus USA is always the top consideration. Planners evaluate such things as: What can be offered in Illinois that may not be available to agri-food tech investors and entrepreneurs at other venues? One focus Roady and her team have for this particular event is the producer, namely the farmers who attend.
“Technology development and adoption can be accelerated with early input from producers and AgTech Nexus is in a location and held at a time of year that allows the farmers to contribute,” Roady says. “We’ve found there’s this tremendous opportunity to pull people together in Chicago to explore ag-tech. It’s ideally situated with soybean production just down the road and leading industry innovators down the street.”
As with any outdoor show, weather is a top challenge for events like MAGIE. “Our attendees, being in the agriculture sector, are never afraid of weather no matter what it is and they religiously show up at MAGIE rain or shine, wind or humidity,” Payne says. “Our relationship with the CVB and with McLean County Farm Bureau, who owns the fairgrounds, ensures the show runs very smoothly.”
Like most meetings and events, identity can be crucial when it comes to planning ag-related shows, which Payne says can help set an event apart from the wide variety of ag-focused and farm-type shows out there.
“MAGIE is geared toward the commercial application industry, so those attending are among peers and feel comfortable networking and being among each other,” Payne says. “That’s what makes MAGIE unique—it celebrates the hard work of the commercial applicators and those who supply them with the equipment and technology to do their jobs to the best of their ability.”
As a strong agricultural state, Illinois is also uniquely united in terms of its agricultural “culture.” Payne believes the future for shows like MAGIE remains strong, so long as they remain true to their mission and the intended audience.
“MAGIE also has unique features like our ‘ride-and-drive,’ which allows attendees to go to the companies that make large application equipment that is used to apply fertilizer and chemicals, and they can sign up for a ride demo, so they get to actually drive the equipment and test out the features,” Payne says. “Everyone needs to feel good about the industry they are working in, and MAGIE celebrates the employees who operate the application equipment day in and day out.”
Hammond stresses that many great people believe in the future of agriculture in the state of Illinois. “With new programs and great partners like Richland and University of Illinois along with the state’s many farmers, agriculture is alive and thriving.”
AgTech Nexus USA | atn.highquestevents.com
Bloomington-Normal Area CVB
visitbn.org | 309.665.0033
Decatur Area Convention & Visitors Bureau | decaturcvb.com | 217.423.7000
Farm Progress Show
farmprogressshow.com | 630.524.4447
Illinois Fertilizer & Chemical Association
ifca.com | 309.827.2774
Illinois Soybean Association
ilsoy.org | 309.663.7692
MAGIE 2019 | Illinois Fertilizer & Chemical Association | ifca.com/magie | 309.827.2774