Reaping What You Sow

A healthy agricultural market and increased sales for farm equipment is helping to fatten the bottom line for many tool sellers around the country. From corn to cotton, today's farms and agricultural repair shops are using sophisticated equipment to handle more complex service jobs.

Although fewer in number, farms have become larger. This translates to the economical feasibility of specialized equipment to continually increase crop yields, while employing fewer and fewer workers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics at the U.S. Department of Labor, specialized farm machinery has grown in size, complexity and variety.

Mac Tools distributor Matt Peternel says he spends almost three days each week calling on his agriculture customers in southern California, which accounts for a large percentage of his overall business. "Bakersfield is the largest cotton-producing city in the country," says Peternel. "And the farms in Bakersfield produce about 65 percent of the country's almond supply. The local cotton and almond farmers are doing very well and that means my business is doing well."

To operate efficiently and remain competitive, many farms have several tractors equipped with 40 - 400-HP engines.

Planters, tillers, manure spreaders, insecticide sprayers, irrigation equipment, combines and hay balers also play crucial roles in planting, nourishing and harvesting crops. This makes their reliability essential to the farmers who depend on these machines' performance in order to feed their families, and ours. This also makes the tools and equipment you deliver that much more important to their business and its success.

Another factor working in your favor is a similarity between this market and their brethren in automotive repair. Simply put, this equipment is getting more complicated and specialized, which means fewer repairs can be done by the owner. This translates to added revenue opportunities for dealerships, and those who service them.

Who Are These Guys?

During the late 1990s, farm equipment mechanics held 44,000 jobs, most of which were in the service departments of farm equipment dealers, but independent repair shops and shops on large farms also employ a significant number of farm equipment mechanics.

Farm equipment mechanics typically earned $13.40 per hour in 2004, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The middle 50 percent earned between $10.77 and $16.34, the lowest 10 percent earned less than $9.08, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $19.40 per hour.

While the number of farm equipment mechanics is likely to decrease this year, most job openings will be the result of retiring mechanics. So those with formal training in farm equipment repair, or individuals carrying some diesel knowledge, should be ready to take their place, and represent prime targets for new tool purchasing.

The New Generation

Farming may be as traditional and old-fashioned as baseball and apple pie, but as stated previously, a tractor built today isn't your grandpa's tractor. For instance, newer tractors can have large, electronically controlled engines, air-conditioned cabs and advanced transmissions.

Especially valuable for these mechanics is electronic know-how, according to the Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM). Although new farm equipment has longer service intervals, the need to keep these pieces of equipment running smoothly brings most farmers to call in the professional. Smaller lawn and garden equipment also constitute a growing share of the farm equipment business, according to the AEM.

Another positive in dealing with the agricultural equipment repair community is that they typically don't witness mechanic layoffs. The dynamic here is that drop-offs in sales usually translate to farmers repairing old equipment instead of purchasing newer and more expensive models.

Mechanics in the agricultural industry typically perform preventive maintenance on older equipment, and periodically, they test, adjust, clean and fine-tune engines to keep them in good working condition. In larger shops, mechanics are responsible for diesel engine overhauls, hydraulic maintenance, as well as clutch and transmission repair.

In response to these duties, tool sellers should carry the following when stopping or servicing one of these shops:

  • A variety of basic and specialty hand tools, including wrenches, pliers, hammers and screwdrivers.
  • Precision power equipment, such as micrometers and torque wrenches.
  • Welding equipment to repair broken parts.
  • Power tools for common disassembly and part replacements.
  • Engine analysis units for diesel and gas engines.
  • Compression testers to measure engine performance, and find worn piston rings or leaking cylinder valves.
  • Consumables like gloves, drill bits, safety glasses and telescoping magnets, which can also be big sellers.
  • Special lifting equipment available for these types of vehicles and machinery.

If you feel out of your element in approaching these shops, try using the following questions to get a better feel for what this customer base needs, and how you can best service them:

  • What tools do you use the most?
  • What challenges confront you the most?
  • If you could invent a tool to solve a particular problem, what would it be, and what is the problem?
  • What consumable products do you use on the job the most?

By asking customers to invent a tool to solve an existing problem, you can gain invaluable insight, and potentially win significant business by producing their invention in the form of a currently available tool. This calls for tool distributors to use their most powerful selling tool—listening.

In many cases farmers depend on equipment dealers to act as a one-stop shop for all of their repair needs. This has led to these facilities implementing more advanced repair solutions in the form of tools, equipment and up-to-date training. These investments represent a great opportunity for anyone offering these products, which should include your business.