5 December 1997

SHOW & FARMING FORTUNES…

Oxfordshire farmer William

Cumbers family has been

associated with the

Smithfield Show since

1926. He reflected on the

changes in latter years to

Peter Grimshaw

WILLIAM Cumber is philosophical about the huge changes in the agricultural industrys fortune during his lifetime, and says the Royal Smithfield Show reflects them.

He believes an annual primestock show in London should still be the aim.

Smithfield has been a barometer of the industry for many years. Hardly any period saw greater or more rapid change than the late 80s and early 90s, during which he was a council member and chairman of the Royal Smithfield Club and for one hectic year, chairman of the whole show.

For someone whose family name has been associated with the show for generations, it was a tough task to face up to a period of consolidation, even contraction. He was a third generation council member when elected in 1976, following his father in 1949 and his grandfather in 1926. It was typical of the familys commitment that Mr Cumbers father gave him life membership of the RSC and RASE as a 21st birthday present.

"My father and grandfather were both livestock farmers to the core," he recalls. "They were true mixed farmers, with enterprises in every farm species."

Renowned breeder

Grandfather was also a renowned breeder of shire horses, and an old black-and-white photograph on the office wall at Manor Farm shows a spectacular parade of the animals, drawn up like a fleet for review.

Mr Cumber started his Royal Smithfield Show duties as an assistant steward in the sheep section, and was elected to the RSC council in 1976. After a period as chief sheep steward and demonstrations steward, he became club chairman elect in 1990, as he says, "rather to my shock".

"It was bad enough to find myself chairman, when I thought there were better people than me for the job," he says. "It was a much worse shock to be proposed as chairman of the whole show for 1996."

Just before his period in office the future of Englands premier Christmas primestock show was seriously threatened. The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders announced that it intended to pull out of the tripartite arrangement with the RSC and the Agricultural Engineers Association, which had run the Royal Smithfield Show since the end of World War II.

Fortunately, Earls Court and Olympia, owned by P&O and landlords to Smithfield since 1949, agreed to step in as co-partners to replace the SMMT. P&O executives saw a waiting list for stand space and could look back on years of reasonable profit.

But other things were going on within the industry. The MacSharry reforms heralded a decline in farming incomes, although their advent was delayed. Wholesale amalgamations within the farm machinery sector meant that the number of potential exhibitors declined. Farm sizes were increasing, almost halving the number of farmers and the number of machines they bought. Other ways of displaying and selling equipment, combined with escalating exhibition costs in London, began to give tackle sellers cold feet.

Paradoxically, the crisis was aggravated by the long-awaited advent of Earls Court 2. The extra space and better facilities for which the show had begged for decades brought with them even higher rents just as the stand waiting list evaporated.

"The show had always made a profit and there had always been a waiting list for stand space. Suddenly it started to run the other way," recalls Mr Cumber.

For two successive years it made a small loss. Meanwhile, Earls Courts owners wanted to put on another event after Smithfield and before Christmas. Cutting back to a four-day show allowed occupancy of the exhibition centre to be reduced from three weeks to two. This cut the rent, but it was still not enough.

Eventually the AEA decided it could support a show only every alternate year.

It is an open secret that the club was not happy with the decision by its partners to cut back to a biennial show. Its slender resources do not permit it to run a big national event on its own.

The RSC council has struggled to maintain the best of the livestock section of the show, albeit at a diminished level. Pigs have finally gone the way of poultry, the industry having fallen mainly into the hands of relatively few large companies which see no benefit in displaying livestock for slaughter. He still believes that there may be scope for an out-of-London intermediate-year event, although he recognises the risk of a loss of prestige. The absence of the London show this year appears to have contributed to record entries for the Scottish Winter Fair, in its centenary year. This year the "alternative" event in the south will be a carcass exhibition and competition on Nov 30.

One innovation this year has been increased prize support for livestock exhibits at the main regional and winter primestock shows in England, Scotland and Wales. But local and "one-off" events for club members that have been tried in the past have been poorly supported.

Mr Cumber clearly shares with other RSC members the deep sense of loss in this "not Smithfield" year that the annual tradition has been broken.

In the days when finishing beef stores was a big enterprise, he used to select a few promising animals after buying them at Taunton market, bringing them on for halter training and entry at the Christmas Shows, including the Royal Smithfield.

Now there is no beef finishing at all on his farm, another sign of the times. Manor Farm is strictly commercial. It has to be.

In common with so many other farmers of his generation, Mr Cumber has followed the economic trend to arable. About two-thirds of the 1214ha (3000 acres) he now farms in Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Wiltshire is in combinable crops.

Primary interest

Although he says his own primary interest is arable, livestock is still very important to the farm business. There is a 120-cow Friesian dairy enterprise, averaging about 8500 litres. There are a few suckler cows – "No subsidy payment, of course, because we also have a dairy herd" – to make use of odd corners, and 900 commercial ewes. An outdoor herd of 430 sows produces weaners for sale.

Most of the Cumbers farm employees come from non-farming backgrounds, another sign of the times. Mr Cumber is unconcerned about this. "New blood in the industry is a good thing," he says.

He is hopeful that new blood in the RSC will bring a similar fresh approach to the show. Almost two-thirds of club members are "lifers" like himself, because it genuinely is part of their way of life. The other third consists mainly of exhibitors, for whom stockmanship is a passion.

Like a family farm, it is a typically British mixture of commerce, tradition and art that is almost impossible to evaluate – or, unchanged, to sustain. &#42

William Cumber started his Smithfield duties as an assistant sheep steward and was elected to the Royal Smithfield Club council in 1976.