2001 was a tough year for
the RASE, with the
Royal Show cancelled for
the first time since the
second world war.
However, the years gap
has allowed some radical
thinking about the future
of this much-revered,
event, as David Cousins
ONE hundred years from now, when agricultural historians examine the records of farm shows of the early 21st century, theyll probably puzzle a bit over the curious gaps in 2001. They may not immediately guess it was foot-and-mouth, but theyll know it must have been something serious to have forced the scrapping of that most unstoppable of shows, the Royal.
For 2001 was the first time – other than during the two world wars – the show had been cancelled since 1840. The total loss through F&M, including the Royal Show, was an estimated £2m.
The only good thing to come from the 2001 no-show, agree RASE chief executive Mike Calvert and show director David Storrar, was that it gave the society a little breathing space to give considered thought to the direction the event should take in the years to come.
Normally, preparations for the next show begin within days of the last one ending, so theres hardly a chance to draw breath. But with the numbers of farmers in the UK diminishing sharply, radical thoughts are necessary if a huge show like the Royal is to survive and thrive into the future.
An average of 175,000 people come to the event each year, of which 40% are farmers and another 20% are industry professionals – vets, merchants, tractor salesmen, agricultural bank managers and so on.
Despite the changes in agriculture, farmer visitor numbers have remained consistent over the past few years. There is also a new, important sector of visitors the RASE needs to appeal to – those who arent actively involved in farming or its ancillary industries but who are interested in the countryside.
This group of people is bound to become more numerous in the future because of the changing perception of farming by the general public. While most non-farmers may find the technical details of arable and livestock production a trifle dull, the environmental and food-chain aspects seem to be increasingly fascinating.
Relying on non-farmers to replace farmers may keep the gate receipts looking good, but its a tricky path to tread. Exhibitors still want a predominately farming audience to buy their products or sign up for their services. So how do you boost farmer visitor numbers?
"We know from our research that many farmers come to the Royal once every two or three years," says David Storrar. "We need to make the show so good that they want to come every year. We also need to attract those farmers who never come to the show."
So would the Royal ever ditch the practical aspects of farming and aim full-scale for the non-farming public – as many smaller shows have had to do? Theres a lot of vigorous head-shaking by Mr Calvert and Mr Storrar at the thought of such a thing:
"The Royal will always be an agricultural show," says Mr Calvert. "And while niche markets will become more important, 70-80% of farm output will still be commodities. We already have the Town and Country Festival for the general public, anyway."
"We do want to see the whole food chain at the show, though, " adds Mr Storrar. "Its a good place to get the producer, processor and consumer together. Its also a vital forum for promoting UK food exports. We will have delegates from more than 70 countries at this years show – thats more than any other UK show apart from the Farnborough Air Show."
There are longer-term concerns, though. Like the diminishing number of machinery and agrochemical firms. Also, that mergers and takeovers are producing giant multinationals whose decisions whether to attend shows like the Royal are increasingly likely to be taken in the US or Europe rather than in Britain. Theres competition from Europe too.
However, the RASE remains bullish about the future. Exhibitor bookings for the 2002 Royal are said to be good and visitor numbers will inevitably benefit from the absence of a show last year. The role of the event as a social forum and a place where new business ideas can be seen and discussed remains undiminished. As far as the RASE is concerned its full steam ahead for 2002.
Whats new at the Royal in 2002
Full details of new and existing features at the Royal this year will be published in the farmers weekly Royal Show supplement in June. But heres a taste of whats planned:
• Potatoes in the food chain
Designed to show all aspects of potato production, quality assurance and processing in a strongly visual form that will appeal to farmers and consumers alike. The aim is to show the whole food chain from potatoes on the ground to the final product.
• Livestock interpretation centre
Aimed at livestock producers and consumers alike, this new marquee will illustrate and promote livestock welfare and will operate guided tours of the livestock lines to help visitors understand how UK commercial and pedigree stock production operates.
• Quality livestock production
Sited in the middle of the livestock area, this will involve four separate areas illustrating meat, feeding, nutrition and carcass quality.
• The cost of purchasing
Arable farming facts and figures feature, in association with Deloitte & Touche. Information will come from a national RASE survey carried out in January.
• Towards tomorrows countryside
Underpinned by strong DEFRA involvement, this feature aims to bring to life the governments latest policies to promote the social and business health of the countryside. Visual examples of particular projects will be shown.
A new perimeter road around the edge of the showground will make it easier to get about the show. This years Royal takes place from Jul 1 to Jul 4. See www.royalshow.org.uk for details.