Today’s county shows are about much more than just livestock, and the relationship between farmers and the public is better for it.
The marquees are in place, the display stands are ready and the livestock have been primped to perfection. It can only mean one thing – the annual agricultural show season is in full swing. By the end of the summer, hundreds of thousands of people will have visited long-running and much-loved shows such as the Bath and West, the Three Counties, the Great Yorkshire and the Royal Welsh.
Many of these events go back to the Victorian era, starting as fiercely fought livestock competitions before slowly developing into the family attractions we see today. But the recent inclusion of stunt motorcyclists and tented shopping ‘villages’ hasn’t gone down well with everyone; for years there’s been a tussle between traditionalists who want a pure agricultural show and others who see the benefits of a more inclusive day out.
My view is that the modern county show is essential as a showcase for British farming, and whether the exhibits are agricultural or commercial, the stands must be as professional as possible. In days gone by, you’d have seen farmhands lying in the straw and drinking beer, without a thought for the image that created.
Thankfully, presentation is now a priority, with smartly uniformed staff, brightly coloured displays and animals immaculately turned out. The majority of shows have raised their game and the farming community realises that it’s essential to connect with the public, and that these events are a fantastic way of doing just that.
But it was a very different story for the Royal Show, held for the last time at Stoneleigh Park, Warwickshire, in 2009. The 160-year-old event stood accused of failing to strike the right balance between town and country, but worse was a series of disasters that conspired against the organisers. First foot and mouth disease, then bluetongue and bovine TB meant that bringing animals to the show became almost impossible for some farmers. Also, in 2007, flooding at the venue forced the early closure of the show and the resulting financial loss and dented reputation effectively signed the Royal’s death warrant.
Strangely, the year the show closed for good was a turning point for farming. It coincided with renewed public interest in the countryside, food and farming, and farmers realised they needed to work harder to engage with the public.
Ironically for the Royal, all this meant a boost in attendance figures at other shows around the country. Organisers saw what had happened in Warwickshire and realised they needed to get their act together to avoid the same fate. Effective marketing and the emphasis on entertaining people, as well as educating them, all paid off. Long gone are the days when simply staging an event could guarantee impressive crowds – it’s imagination and ingenuity that will keep the county shows alive in the future.
So what about those diehards who want an agricultural-only experience? Well the industry has solved that conundrum, too. If you want to go to a show to buy a piece of hi-tech machinery or discuss the intricacies of animal production, there are any number of specialist events that have been created especially for that market.
That leaves the way open for the county shows to provide a better mix of attractions and also offer a shop window for livestock. As any farmer will tell you, you can’t underestimate the prestige of a decent collection of rosettes gathered from shows around the country.
Adam Henson was talking to Vernon Harwood for the July issue of Countryfile Magazine.