Long before the gates opened to the public, vendors were busy covering the pitch black farmland of southwestern Minnesota with their displays, and from tent to tent, they sounded upbeat about their prospects for making some money this year.
"I think this is really going to be a good Farmfest this year. Probably is one of the biggest ones in the last few years," said Al Wiegers with the Hanson Silo Company in Lake Lillian, near Willmar.
"The farmers all have money," he said. "The corn prices are up; the dairy is up, and all the crops are up, so it should be a real good show."
At a Case IH exhibit, regional sales manager Bill Whitworth was making sure the red tractors with their gigantic black tires were perfectly polished. Whitworth said business for Case has been very good. He said agriculture has been bucking the economic downturn that's plaguing so much of the rest of the economy.
"I know housing starts are, and I watch the news myself, and you know there are foreclosures and stuff like that, where the farm economy has been very, very good," said Whitworth. "And you know crop prices are some days at an all time high here in '08, and there are some guys really reaping some benefits of it."
Farm equipment merchants say during good times like these, farmers upgrade their machinery. Whitworth said there's more interest than ever in high technology, so-called advanced farming systems, that use satellites to maximize farming efficiency.
"We've seen a true growth spurt in the guidance products due to input costs rising and things of that nature," he said. "It's all about dialing it down to every cent, and if you can find ways to save money and put more bushels in your grain tank, guys have really opened their eyes up to that technology."
Energy themes are everywhere at Farmfest: How to use it efficiently, how to make it from do-it-your-self biodiesel systems, and how to set up wind turbines.
Aaron Lilyerd of Sun Energy was setting up a Ventera wind generator. The turbine slowly began turning, then quickly ramped up to the point where it was shaking the trailer it is mounted to for the trade show.
"This is a new one," said Lilyerd. "It's being made in Duluth. It's for residential or farm-type applications. It will make about what a normal house will use in a month."
Lilyerd and his dad are selling the turbine for about $35,000.
And they're banking that farmers, fed-up with high energy prices, will give serious consideration to investing some of their proceeds from high crop prices in wind and other alternative energy technologies.
Optimism about the farm economy seems to show through at every corner of Farmfest, but Bob Byrnes with the University of Minnesota Extension Service, who's not selling anything, offered a more measured look at farmer's economics.
"Many farmers potentially have available capital, but also recognize that every input cost they have also has increased," explained Byrnes.
Byrnes said on everything from the price of diesel fuel to fertilizer, even land prices, farmers are getting squeezed.
"So while we may look at the ag business and farm business and say, 'Boy, there should be a lot of capital here to invest,' there's also a lot of expenses ," said Byrnes. "The net effect is that maybe there isn't as much investment opportunity or profit opportunity as one might think."
Not surprisingly, the focus at the extension service tent is on alternative energy and on the efficient use of fuel and fertilizer.
There is also an emphasis this year on teaching farmers on how to take advantage alternative energy. For example, how to ensure that farmers aren't giving away more then they should when signing contracts with wind energy developers.