Keeping our ear to ground means keeping in touch with dealers from across the continent. Farm Equipment regularly hears from readers that let us know how things are going in their regions. When we conducted an e-mail survey last week to update our 2009 forecast for ag equipment sales, several dealers also offered commentary on business conditions in the areas. Here's what they told us.
Between January 7 and 9, Farm Equipment conducted an e-mail survey to update our 2009 Outlook & Trends Report forecast. More than 150 dealers responded and the results are analyzed in the January 2009 Ag Equipment Intelligence newsletter. (For more information on Ag Equipment Intelligence from Lessiter Publications, please contact Dave Kanicki at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
In addition to answering a four-question survey, several dealers took the time to tell us about what's happening in their regions of the country. The commentaries from the West Coast, Deep South, Southeastern and Mid-South areas of the country were interesting and helpful in getting a handle on sales trends outside of the Midwest.
Some Pick Up Out West. While sales of under 100-horsepower tractors continue to struggle at least one West Coast dealer says he's seeing some evidence that things may be turning up, at least a little.
Dave Siemens, owner of Dave's Tractor of Red Bluff, Calif., and Rural Lifestyle Dealer's Dealership of the Year for 2007, says mid-September through mid-November were "lonely" months for his dealership. Dave's Tractor handles Mahindra and Branson tractor lines and specializes in serving rural lifestyle customers in Northern California.
"Local walnut orchardists are seeing about half the money they expected for their crops. Our focus remains on the rural lifestyler and I think we saw the bottoming out of the market from about September 15th through mid-November when we experienced two months of 'very' slow sales," says Siemens.
"The second half of November and December were relatively good. Calendar year 2008 finished 5.8% higher in gross sales then 2007 and profits were up about the same amount. While this may not have been stellar, we are pleased."
Still Slow in Mississippi. On the other hand, Jim McNeil of McNeil Tractor & Equipment, a Kubota dealer in Laurel, Miss., says things are still tough in south Mississippi.
"Our 2008 Sales were down 15% and in the last month things have gotten much worse due to plant slow downs and closings. The poultry industry is at a standstill and they're saying it'll be 18-24 months before they see an upturn," he says.
He also adds that sundowners stopped buying in October. "When they might pick up is a mystery."
Small Tractors in S.C. On top of an already difficult market for compact and utility tractors, Coker Fogle says that many of the dealers in the southern region of the country are still feeling the effects of the Farmtrac debacle.
Fogle, owner of Fogles Farm Machinery, Livingston, S.C., says the outlook is grim in his area of the country. "Tractor sales were off around 35% last year and on Farmtrac equipment they were dead in the water. Most dealers lost all their profits on Farmtrac tractors."
With other equipment, the situation wasn't quite as bad according to Fogle. "Disc harrows and bush hogging equipment were up about 5% and overall trailer sales were down somewhat. Sales of special-order trailers, like enclosed trailers and open heavy-duty units, were up around 4%."
Fogle reports that his dealership's total sales for all of 2008 were down 3% from 2007 and doesn't see a major bounce in his business for at least a couple years.
"After the new president gets in and the housing market finally hits bottom, then we will see a turnaround, but it will take two years to really see a big boost in our farm equipment business. There's money out there, but a lot of folks are backing up on big purchase items for now. That's what we're seeing down here," says Fogle.
From Tennessee & Kentucky. Tim Brannon owns two dealerships that handle AGCO and Massey Ferguson equipment and several shortlines in Paris, Tenn., and Hopkinsville, Ky. He took and shared his views on everything from why compact and utility-type tractors aren't selling well and why the big 4WD units are moving off dealer lots. Some personal anecdotes also illustrate what he's seeing in his neck of the woods.
He reports that ag equipment sales to the consumer market — particularly compact tractors under 50 horsepower — were off about 19% in December and believes the trend will continue, "as long as the economy is in the tank."
He adds, "President-elect Obama might provide some stimulation, the but a $500 check won't get the housing market going again. The reason why the sales of compact tractors were so great for so long was due to housing starts. I'm talking about 'BIG' houses and Ranchettes — 10 acres, 2 horses and a barn. 'Dream houses' with a small tractor with a loader and mower. Not too long ago, buying a small tractor didn't add much to people's other monthly payments.
"With housing down, so went the new small tractor sales," says Brannon. "Kubota told their dealers 'don't let inventory put you out of business.' If you order it, you get it and you pay for it — no handouts."
He also adds that Massey Ferguson is currently offering 6-year free financing on compact tractors. "Some models are discounted as much as 20%. This is a scary market," Brannon says.
As for the ag end of the market, "Cattle, as in cow-calf operation, are in the dumper as well," he explains. "It's impossible right now to turn a profit, but folks keep doing it because the land isn't suitable for row crops and 'It's what Dad always did.'
"This is also hurting the small regular tractor [40-60 horsepower] sales down," says Brannon.
"Also keep in mind these tractors represent a high numbers segment. They are still being sold, but volume is off 10% in this area compared to last few years. Will it pick up? Probably some, but it depends on corn prices and what the general economy does."
To illustrate his point, Brannon adds this personal anecdote: "We went to a steak house last week and there was no line — it's usually a half hour to 45 minute wait. It looks to me like the demand for rib eyes is way down. When people start popping for steaks then the market will follow."
"Tractors above 100 horsepower? Demand is good but the volume isn't nearly what it is for the small tractors. The big area is high-horsepower, articulated 4WD units." He sees Midwest farms getting larger, gobbling up land left by retirees. As they do, Midwest farmers will more and larger equipment and implements.
He believes along the way, farmers will hit a point of diminishing returns when it comes to farm size. "It takes a special person to manage a large farm. As farms get larger they usually diminish in productivity and quality."