As the calendar gets ready to turn, I’m certain many folks in the ag retail industry are looking back at 2009 and remembering what they lost during this most turbulent year. By now, you’ve probably seen all the key headlines from what analysts are calling The Great Recession. Massive inventory write-downs, lost sales volume, and depressed margins have affected many in the marketplace. I’m certain once the page flips to 2010, most of these individuals will be celebrating, if for no other reason than having survived to do business for another year.
For myself, however, I will be remembering the non-survivors of 2009 as the new year comes around. I’ve covered this business for almost a full decade now and I can’t remember another year where so many fine industry leaders and legends left us to carry on without them. Of course, the biggest individual to go in 2009 – at least in terms of impact – was Dr. Norman Borlaug, the father of the green revolution. By most conservative accounts, Borlaug’s revolutionary approaches to agriculture have been responsible for saving more than 1 billion lives. On the association side, the Agricultural Retailers Association lost its leader, Jack Eberspacher. Leading the group since 2001, Eberspacher is credited with turning the association around in terms of finances and political influence.
While I knew both Borlaug (by reputation) and Eberspacher (through occasional contact), two other deaths affected me more personally in 2009. One was Mike Turner, head of the Wisconsin Crop Protection Association. When I first met Mike in 2005, it was clear he had big plans for his trade group and its roll in shaping legislative policy for member companies. Mike could be a tough debater. But he had a softer side as well, writing children’s books in his spare time.
Then there was Bob Mills. A long-time fixture at tender manufacturer Ray-Man, Bob was fun-loving and jovial at industry events. He once gave me a business card listing his credentials, including “emptying saloons and selling swamp land.” But Bob could also be serious when the situation called for it. Often when I was writing a story on ag retail equipment, Bob would provide me with insider information or a quote that “told it like it is.”
In one sense, I’m glad I got to spend parts of the last 10 years getting to know these industry friends and learn more about them. They helped me find my way through my “new guy” learning curve and provided many pearls of valuable wisdom I will take with me into 2010 and beyond.
It’s a shame they all couldn’t be here for just a little while longer.