Developments at the Great Yorkshire Showground highlight how an Agricultural Society is going from strength to strength, as Sarah Todd discovers
The Yorkshire Agricultural Society is ploughing £5m into a new building.
One wing of the new Regional Agricultural Centre will be for rural not-for-profit organisations – such as the county Young Farmers’ office – to move into and share facilities and ideas. The other will be home to Fodder, a food hall with a difference, where 85% of the food sold will be from Yorkshire.
The £5.1m Regional Agricultural Centre will include a shop, café and suite of offices. It has been designed to minimise impact on the environment.
The development needed 1000t of new concrete and 1000t of masonry.
Fleeces from 1500 sheep will provide insulation for the offices.
There will be 1000m of drainage.
The timber frame will use 75 tonnes of wood.
Heather Parry, deputy chief executive of the agricultural society, set herself the monumental task of visiting – and tasting – every potential supplier of Fodder, which is on the edge of the Great Yorkshire Show site in Harrogate, North Yorkshire.
“This just struck me as common sense,” she says. “But it’s surprised people. So many seem to sell goods without ever coming face-to-face with the person buying them.
“To be honest, I’ve been shocked by some kitchens. Companies have said ‘we never normally get visited’ and I’ve gone away thinking they’re getting away very lightly.”
Of course, there have been plenty of businesses to pass muster. But in these days of often wishy-washy lines of command, where nobody tells it like it is, Heather Parry is refreshingly blunt. She’s not been a pushover, for example, when it comes to the inclusion of organic produce. If it’s the best product, yes, but not for the sake of appealing to trendy shoppers.
“Studies in publications such as The Grocer show that people are more interested in where food comes from at the moment – how local it is,” explains Heather. “I’m very definite though that local shouldn’t mean more expensive.”
While the new building will be swish – it’s been built to be as green as possible with ground source heat pumps and other environmentally-friendly ideas – there is a determination that it shouldn’t be out of the ordinary shoppers’ reach.
“Yes, you’ll be able to buy fancy poppy-seeded bread,” says Heather. “But you’ll also be able to buy a plain loaf.
“Likewise with other basics, such as crisps. There will be a premium hand-cut Yorkshire produced range, but we’ll also stock the cheaper Seabrook range – the company only uses potatoes grown in Yorkshire.”
Many of those supplying goods into Fodder are farming families. The first to be signed up was Caroline Sellers of the East Yorkshire Side Oven Bakery. She uses flour grown on her husband’s farm.
|Heather Parry (left) is on the hunt for Yorkshire’s finest foods.|
“While we have to make a profit – all monies made go into the agricultural society’s charity – we are determined to pay farmers and other suppliers fairly,” pledges Heather.
“We will be transparent, with no sharp practices. There’ll be no putting the squeeze on our farmers. There will only be offers if we have a seasonal glut of a particular product, for example. Shoppers will come to us for quality, local produce at fair prices – not buy one get one free supermarket-style offers.”
Those who dare suggest that the big food hall will take business away from small farm shops will get short shrift from Heather. “We will actively be telling people about farm shops and other outlets nearer their homes,” she says.
“It’s daft for somebody to drive 20 miles here if they can get the same product nearer. Interestingly, our research has shown how many people aren’t aware of the wonderful farm shops that are only a few miles down the road from them. That’s something we intend to put right.”
Far too savvy to have a “Terminal Five” type opening disaster, Heather is planning a soft launch next week, a few weeks ahead of the official opening on 17 June. “Things will go wrong,” she says. “It makes sense to ease ourselves into this new venture before the main focus of the actual launch day.”
Heather, whose parents have a farm, moved to Yorkshire from her previous post with the Royal Smithfield Show – another show, like the Royal, which folded.
“When I was working at the Smithfield, there was the most fantastic atmosphere,” she says. “It seemed like all the countryside came to London.”
While she’s far too diplomatic to criticise either the management of the Smithfield or the Royal, she is up front about why she feels the Yorkshire Show (14-16 July) has bucked the trend.
“We’ve been lucky to have good foundations,” she explains. “Our forefathers bought this site in 1949. So 60 years ago, somebody did a very sensible thing.
“In Yorkshire we are lucky that our visitors are proud to be from the county. There is a real feeling of community about the show – it’s a huge social occasion. We’ve stuck to the same date and our visitors know, without checking, that the Great Yorkshire Show will be on during the second week in July. There’s no wondering what the date will be.”
Heather wonders whether the attempt by some societies to “appeal to all” has backfired.
“Here at the Yorkshire we made a decision a long time ago to stay agricultural, to remain true to our roots. We’ve been determined not to alienate our audience for the sake of a quick buck.
“Yes, you can buy a jumper and goodness knows what else from the stalls, but the main focus is that we are an agricultural show.”
The seed for the office wing of the Regional Agricultural Centre, which has been part-funded by Yorkshire Forward, was sown back in the dark days of 2001 and the foot-and-mouth crisis.
“The Yorkshire Agricultural Society was concerned that there were so many people wanting to help, but that so many different organisations were working separately,” recalls Heather.
“It makes sense for costs to be shared rather than people plugging away on their own. There’ll be phones, photocopiers – and, perhaps most importantly, a staff room where people from different concerns, with the common thread of agriculture, can meet and exchange ideas, which can only be a good thing.”