Longtime Ag Progress Days manager retiring after 'a good run'

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- During the 25 years Bob Oberheim has been managing Ag Progress Days for Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences, the show has … well, made a lot of progress. And he's proud of that.

In 1992, when the Bellefonte, Centre County, native began as show manager upon the retirement of former longtime manager Joe Harrington, Ag Progress Days had 285 exhibitors. By comparison, the 2016 show will have about 500. Representatives of most of the big agricultural equipment makers now have a presence at the show, and many demonstrate their machines.

And when Oberheim started overseeing the show, all exhibitors were under tents. Now, many exhibits are in buildings. "Looking back at 25 years, what I've been so pleased with is the increase and improvement in the facilities --we have added seven new buildings," he said.

"I guess my pride and joy are the two large buildings, the Ag Choice and the Everett Cash Mutual buildings. On the first day I took over managing the show, one of my goals was to eliminate the big exhibit tents and build permanent buildings, and we did. Structures like the Equine Building and the Joe Harrington Conservation Building -- which went up just a few years ago -- have added a lot to the show. "

It is understandable for Oberheim to reflect on his tenure as Ag Progress Days manager because the 2016 show, Aug. 16-18, will be the last one he oversees. He is retiring from the University after 39 years, on Sept. 30.

From his catbird seat viewing agriculture, Oberheim, who also has managed the college's Horticulture Farm for 29 years, has seen a lot. Most notable is the development of bigger, better, more capable and more sophisticated farming equipment. Like most everything else, agriculture has been greatly affected by the computer age.

equipment at Ag Progress Days

Ag Progress Days has continued to be a success, according to longtime manager Bob Oberheim, because the show has "stayed true" to its agricultural producer audience, and commercial exhibitors, like the one who provided this huge piece of equipment -- and later demonstrated its capabilities in a nearby crop field -- are thrilled with the nature of show attendees.

Image: Penn State

"I have seen the technology boom with GPS on planters, tractors and sprayers, and hands-free tractor driving. And the size of the equipment has increased dramatically," he said. "We now have 90-foot sprayers, 12-row planters and huge, self-propelled harvesters. I have watched with great interest the computerization of agriculture -- how it has evolved over the last three decades."

At first, he was pessimistic about how that same technology boom would affect his show. Many outdoor trade and consumer shows -- indeed all kinds of shows indoor and outdoor -- are struggling to stay profitable and survive. But Ag Progress Days has managed to hold its own through the years, despite the emergence of the internet and online shopping, browsing and searching.

Oberheim credits the show’s ongoing success to its unique make-up, first in highlighting the College of Agricultural Sciences' research, technology and extension programs while remaining dedicated to serving agricultural producers. "I think the true producer looks at Ag Progress Days as a vacation to do something with the family that is enjoyable because the show has something for everyone. And they can shop for and buy equipment -- because of that I think we've stayed strong," he said.

"The other thing I attribute the success of the show to is that we have stayed true to our audience. You won't see pots and pans, paintings, and crafts. Because of that, the producer is more apt to attend, and he is pleased with what he sees when he comes. And I think the commercial exhibitors are thrilled with the quality of the ag audience. The audience we have is about 60 percent related to agriculture."

But it is true that show attendance has declined by 10,000 to 15,000 people in the last 25 years or so, a result of the shrinking agricultural sector in the state. "There are probably half as many farms today as when I started," he said. "Show attendance on average has been 40,000 to 42,000 people the last few years, and when I took over in 1992, we had 55,000 to 60,000 people."

Oberheim has also served as secretary of the Farm Show Commission for 21 years. In that role he has coordinated and overseen the College of Agricultural Sciences' involvement in the Pennsylvania Farm Show. That's a big job because Penn State's contribution to the annual, sprawling agricultural extravaganza in Harrisburg is huge. Oberheim has been responsible for managing travel, lodging and appearances for hundreds of faculty and staff at the Farm Show -- a role he described as the "behind the scenes support person."

Through it all, Oberheim, who graduated from Delaware Valley College with a bachelor's degree in agronomy and who earned a master's degree in agronomy while working at Penn State, believes he has had a charmed career with the University. From his first job as a research technologist in the agronomy department in 1979 to putting the finishing touches on this year's version of Ag Progress Days, he has enjoyed it all.

He noted that Ag Progress Days is a little like Christmas in August for him -- the gradual build-up to the event while paying attention to a to-do list, and Monday night before the show is like Christmas Eve. "When I get there Tuesday morning early for the show, it's like opening presents -- everything is all clean and polished and exhibitors are there waiting for customers. The energy level is high, and I like to just sit back and watch it all unfold," he said.

"That's where my rewards have come. I have been so blessed because I have not come to work a single day in 39 years without enjoying it. I've had a good run."

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Last Updated August 01, 2016