4 June 1999

EAST OF ENGLAND 99

OPTS FOR EDUCATION

Its a time of change for the East of

England Show, which opens its doors on

June 18. Not only has it moved to a

weekend slot, but it has embarked on a

long-term programme to help explain

farming and food to the general public.

Mike Williams reports

KEEP it as a traditional event for farmers or turn it into a day out for the townies – those are two of the options for agricultural shows as they head towards the next millennium. But the East of England Show policy is a combination of both, and early signs are that its dual approach is working.

The big change for the three-day show is the end of traditional mid-week opening. This year the gates are open on Friday and through the weekend in a bid to make it more accessible to the non-farming public.

It was a major policy change which needed careful consideration, says Tonie Gibson, the East of England Agricultural Societys chief executive, and not everyone on the committee was in favour. There were some who prefer a more traditional approach and were concerned that weekend opening could make the show less attractive to the farming community.

"It was a difficult decision and we have had a lot of discussion about the future role of agricultural shows," he says. "But in the end it was the committee which decided that we should become a weekend show. One of the reasons is the opportunity it gives to provide information about food production and the farming industry to the general public who are our customers.

"This is a tremendous public relations opportunity at a time when there is a great deal of ignorance and misinformation about our industry. Many young people, particularly in towns, are almost completely out of touch with what happens on farms and they only hear negative things about the way food is produced.

"Farmers need organisations like ours to speak up for their industry, and there is a lot we can say," Mr Gibson says. "UK farms have the highest standards of animal welfare in the world. That is the sort of message the general public should be hearing."

The societys market research suggests the show was already attracting large numbers of people from towns. About 100,000 of the 160,000 visitors each year have no direct links with agriculture and opening the gates at the weekend could give a further boost to non-farming ticket sales. To encourage the trend, the society has organised a publicity campaign to persuade coach companies to offer trips to the show, helped by concessionary tickets for coach parties and school groups.

Some sections of the programme aimed particularly at non-farming visitors have been improved. The idea of telling the spectators what is happening in the stock judging classes will be extended this year, with a commentator to explain the type of animals being judged and the features judges look for.

And the Country Trail, which takes younger children on a structured tour of the show with prizes for information collected on the way, has also been uprated, while an additional incentive this year is a free ice cream or face-painting session for each child completing the trail.

The farmers show

In spite of efforts to attract town dwellers, the East of England is still a farmers show and the organisers have made a special effort to keep the support of the farming community.

New developments specifically for farmers include a joint initiative with the Scott Abbott Arable Crops Station (SAACS) at Sacrewell Lodge Farm, Thornhaugh, a few miles from the showground. This allows farmers to fit in a guided tour of the SAACS as part of their show visit.

This years SAACS programme includes winter wheat variety trials and work on nitrogen response, drilling dates, fungicides and herbicides. Potatoes also feature in the trials, with work on varieties, GPS nematode mapping and using SUNDIAL for nitrogen prediction. The two-hour farm visit is free to farmers visiting the show, with a free bus service to and from Sacrewell provided. But numbers are limited and an advance reservation is essential.

Another development this year is a special meeting place for farmers and their families, with light refreshments provided. The new meeting place is in the main agricultural area, close to the trade stands.

Mr Gibson is confident developments such as the SAACS link will continue to make the show attractive to farmers and others involved in the industry, and the evidence so far suggests he could be right. The SAACS tours are so popular that some of them were fully booked four weeks before the show opened. And fears that weekend opening would persuade many of the agricultural standholders to pull out of the show are unfounded, as absentees are easily outnumbered by new arrivals. The number of stands booked this year by companies offering machinery, buildings and other agricultural products is the highest for about four years.

Student interest

Students at colleges in the eastern region are lending a hand with some of the exhibits, playing their part in providing entertainment and information for show-goers.

The small animals exhibit organised by Shuttleworth College, Beds, is aimed mainly at younger visitors, Moulton College in Northants has a farm animals exhibit aimed at the same age range, while a demonstration of grooming and general care will be provided by The Wood Green Animal Shelters College for Animal Welfare.

Moulton College also has an arable farming exhibit, while students from the West Anglia College in Cambs are concentrating on beef breeding, including information on grazing systems for beef. And for those who would like their farms to be self-sufficient in energy production, the De Montfort University exhibit looks at renewable energy sources including coppicing, wind energy and methane from farm waste.

More for gardeners

One of the areas which will attract both farmers and townspeople at this years show is the gardening exhibit. Renamed Gardeners Paradise, it is located on a big site beside the flower show, and has received massive support from trade exhibitors including garden and landscape design companies.

"We have allocated a very large area to Gardeners Paradise, and we have been very impressed by the level of support it is attracting from the trade in its first year," says Mr Gibson. "I am sure this area will be on the priority list for many of the show visitors this year, and it is a feature we will be developing further in the future."

SHOWDETAILS

&#8226 When: June 18, 19 and 20.

&#8226 Where: The showground is on the northern edge of Peterborough, signposted from the A1.

&#8226 Admission: Discounted prices are available for tickets purchased in advance. Adult £9.35 in advance, £11 at the gate, £8.25 member; child (age 5-16) £4.25 in advance, £5 at the gate, £3.75 member; OAP £6.80 in advance, £8.00 at the gate, £6.00 member; family tickets costing £18 admit two adults and two children. Freephone number for advance ticket sales 0800-783 5033.