It may have seemed like a conventional progression as Doug Wagner worked his way through a career in promoting agricultural innovation but, as he prepared to retire on Oct. 31, he was struck by comments from one colleague who pointed out how unconventional it actually is.
After moving from a post-University of Guelph job with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs to toiling for the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association and the International Plowing Match, Wagner eventually joined Ginty Jocius in founding and operating Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show (COFS).
“A few days ago, one of my colleagues said there isn’t anybody else who can say they’ve helped start two big outdoor agricultural trade shows that went on to be well-known around the world, and I had to admit he was right,” Wagner said on the day of his retirement.
“(COFS) as we know it today is a legacy of Doug’s ability to bring a dream to reality through visionary leadership, practical execution and innovative thought,” said GFM executive vice-president Carla Vipond.
“His remarkable reputation has opened doors for Glacier FarmMedia. He has left a lasting impression on the agricultural industry and the legacy he has built will be felt through Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show for years to come.”
The first COFS took place in September 1994 at what was then Shur-Gain’s Burford Research Station. It drew 300 exhibitors in the first year. Wagner said he is proud to recall that the show had a woodlot expo in that first year, showing how organizers could think outside the box about what could and should be of interest to the farm community. The woodlot expo remains an integral part of COFS today.
Wagner’s perception at the time was that “we started small” but admitted it might not have been small enough.
“I don’t mind telling you we vastly over-estimated what we would see on that first show.”
It didn’t get the expected number of exhibitors or visitors, and it took five years to work out of the debt incurred.
Wagner said industry stakeholders who had been lobbying for a permanent site stood behind them and showed support for subsequent editions. That’s a degree of support he hasn’t forgotten.
“There’s some pretty good footage (from those early days) of people speaking about where we’d be in 25 years. Some thought we’d be where we are now; some thought we’d be totally virtual by now.”
But he thinks the reason it has continued in its outdoor, in-person format is that farmers are outside people. They want to get together and learn and network outside.
“Farmers have chosen the outdoors as their lifestyle. It was only natural that we’d get an outdoor, family-focused trade show. On top of that, farmers at the time – and I think they still do – liked to see and touch things before they buy them.”
COFS lasted three years in Burford but, with the government of the day looking to downsize the number of OMAFRA research stations, the writing was on the wall that it had to find a new home.
“The opportunity came up to lease 100 acres on the northwest corner of the Woodstock Research Station” from the University of Guelph, said Wagner. Over the next decade, COFS grew to 750 exhibitors.
“Once we got moved to Woodstock, a whole lot of dreams started to come to fruition.”
Wagner pinpoints the outdoor experience as one key to COFS’s success. Two other keys were the ability to offer in-field demonstrations of cropping equipment and the ability of crop protection and seed companies to create plots of “new technology growing at the farmers’ feet.” These became reality after the move to Woodstock.
Twenty-five years later, COFS owns that 100 acres, leases another 140 of the research station land from the Agriculture Research Institute of Ontario and has access to 380 acres for the show and the expanded site’s new uses as a year-round independent research and demonstration farm, called Discovery Farm.
Not surprisingly, parking became an early issue. The show was able to lease land from adjacent landowners, some of which was recently sold by the owners to COFS for its permanent use.
“There’s a woodlot on that farm; there’s a pond,” Wagner noted. “Over time, I see a lot of opportunities to do some great things there.”
He believes COFS is poised for growth and innovation, having expanded its land and developed the Discovery Farm. This will allow the site to grow as a show venue and host events throughout the year.
The Discovery Farm concept was considered back in the early 2000s, Wagner recalled, when there was more collaboration between the show and the University of Guelph. With the purchase by GFM in 2011, the Discovery Farm idea made its way back to the top of the list.
Glacier brought promotional resources, allowing the COFS people to concentrate on putting together a bigger and better show “that opened up a whole lot more opportunities.”
Vipond’s message to GFM employees said Wagner “has agreed to serve as an advisor to me on special projects and initiatives on a contract basis so we can benefit from his experiences, relationships and knowledge in a new way.”
Wagner expects he’ll do some travelling. A trip up the Inside Passage to Alaska is already planned this fall, and there’s an open invitation to spend time with friends in Florida.
He recognizes that his experiences leave him well-placed to lend a hand in any number of ways.
“I’ve heard that, when word gets out that you’re retiring, your phone starts to ring quite a lot,” he said with a chuckle.