Agricultural shows and societies are rich in their history and showcase the heritage of key elements of farming and rural life. Danusia Osiowy looks at how their role continues to change.
Shows are, without a doubt, iconic to the local agricultural area and farming community and the wider socio-economic landscape. Seven million people attend agricultural and countryside shows every year in the UK, according to the Association of Show and Agricultural Organisations (ASAO), and numbers are only set to increase as their role remains unequivocal.
Shows and their parent agricultural societies demonstrate incredible longevity and are often supported by member-led committees dedicated to safeguarding their futures. Last year, Heckington Show, Lin- colnshire, Emely Show, Yorkshire, and Romsey Show, Hampshire, celebrated anniversaries of 100 years or more. Christine Knipe, chief executive of Westmorland County Agricultural Society and chairman of ASAO, says it is the support offered by members and local communities which make agri- cultural shows and societies so special.
She says: “Shows are run by volun- teers and, for me, this automatically brings the community together as we work towards a common goal. Shows are exceptionally social; whether this is visitors meeting friends or families, neighbours and exhibitors.
“There are many rekindled friendly rivalries in the showring of people who also enjoy the craic on the stock lines. “Many of our attendees tell us they cannot go five yards without meeting someone they know on show day. “Show committees are immen- sely proud, quite rightly so, of what they achieve.”
Much has changed in the farming landscape since agricultural societies were first established back in the mid- 18th century. Back then, their entire focus was to improve agricultural productivity and shows soon emerged as the princi- ple vehicle to deliver the aim, where livestock competitions were used to identify superior genes and anim- als and where the latest technology and farm implements would have been showcased to farmers and landowners.
Today, their role is more diverse and they now attract a far wider demo- graphic as they welcome families, groups and individuals who are not from a farming background. Although a survey conducted at the Royal Welsh Show in 2015 revealed almost 60 per cent of visitors did not work in agriculture, attendees identified their most popular areas of enjoyment were livestock, animals, food, socialising and atmosphere.
Aled Jones, former assistant chief executive of the Royal Welsh Agricultural Society, embarked on an international programme of travel to study more about the fu- ture of agricultural shows through his Nuffield Farming Scholarship.
He says: “Surveys conducted in Australia, America and Canada high- light people come for livestock, food and, above all, to a good day out.”
Aled visited 27 showgrounds in 11 countries across four continents. “It is important to recognise our visitor profile is changing and agri- cultural shows are no longer talking just to farmers. The challenge is how we translate our rich history, heritage and tradition to the modern farmer and visitor.
“What is reassuring is livestock and the fundamental traditions attached to a show still features heavily as the key reason people attend.” Christine advocates balancing trad- itions with contemporary practices.
She says: “It is exceptionally import- ant to preserve traditional practices. These provide perfect opportunities to learn from the masters, no matter whether it be in the showring, plaiting a heavy horse or coopering a barrel. “The industry recognises the need not just to look back, but also forwards, with many continually evolving to remain relevant. “This is probably one of the hardest balancing acts we perform, retaining the traditional while continuing to innovate.”
Attracting about 120,000 visitors across three days, the Royal Cornwall Show showcases a vibrant array of farming, foods, crafts and music; a diverse mix which provides something of interest to many people, whether from farming stock or not.
Despite its willingness to embrace change, the show, which will cele- brate its 225th anniver- sary this year, is still a meeting point for the community, says chief executive Chris Riddle.
He says: “Cornwall is quite a remote county. It provides both social and business elements, which is what people love. “You get people coming because, traditionally, it is something their families have always done and, for many, it is not just a one-day thing.
“This show is an integral part of what the country stands for. Farming is a family thing and we have fourth and fifth generation stewards coming through, for example.”
Despite its long track record, Chris believes keeping core themes alive has helped define the show’s identity and secure loyalty from visitors.
“The show, even after hundreds of years, still has a very strong agricultural sector and the fact there is a long waiting list of customers wanting to take an exhibitor stand indicates the positivity of its future.”
Societies and shows are also committed to educating the wider public and the ASAO supports the delivery of a host of curriculum-based activities, including learning days, interactive workshops, professional development placements, farm visits, countryside projects and nature trails.
The Royal Highland Educational Trust has proven their reach extends way beyond their annual show, as they welcome about 16,500 school- children on to farms each year, delivering classroom talks to 28,000 pupils and hosting more than 300 school trips at the show. It is not just the education role shows play, as they collectively extend their contribution into the economy.
Christine says: “Agricultural shows contribute massively to the economy. Many have evaluated their economic performance with astounding results.
“Last time Westmorland undertook an economic impact survey was in 2006, and was identified as generat- ing £4.2m annually.
“Additionally, we often forget the impact our shows have on the local, county and area economy.
“This was identified in 2001, when most shows cancelled due to the foot-and-mouth outbreak.
Success should not be limited to economic outcomes alone; the social impact is unquantifiable.”
Chris believes a key role in the future of agricultural shows and societies is to reach out to those outside farming.
He says: “Although you may live in a rural area and drive past fields every day, you may not know what actually goes on in the field.
“It provides a chance to see the farming lifestyle and we educate throughout the year with our Farm and Country Roadshow, visiting schools and connecting people with where their food comes from.”
AFTER starting out as a social event planned by the farming community shortly after World War Two, the Goosnargh and Longridge area has seen a rapid increase in housing developments and the onset of a more urban population. Although many of the small farms have now ceased, the show remains integral to the farming community, which has adapted to changes, says chairman of the show, Adrian Hill.
He says: “Shows were an opportunity to get away from the relentless grind of working long hours seven days a week.
“It gave people the chance, primarily, to test the quality of livestock against their neighbours and fill the day for all the family, with jam making and baking for ladies and sports for children.
“But now, all these years on, even though many on the committee are not from farming backgrounds, their overriding goal is still to abide by what is written in their constitution, which is the promotion and general advancement of the science of agriculture and horticulture in their widest sense.
“To keep the core value alive, it is imperative they run all the traditional sections and classes associated with agricultural shows: the cattle, heavy horse, light horse, sheep and poultry sections, as well as horticulture, crafts, the Women’s Institute section and a huge children’s section of handwriting, pictures and crafts.”
Adrian believes this agricultural show plays a much bigger part in the grand scheme of things and is more than just a day out.
He says: “The need to educate is vital for the future. Here in Longridge, we have numerous new housing developments, but the size of our community will grow by about 40 per cent in terms of population, and very few, if any, will have any association with agriculture or horticulture.
“For current and future committee members, the measure of our success will be the survival of the show and our ability to educate and inform the general public.”