County shows need to show some unity to survive

The mood within agricultural show offices across the land couldn’t be more varied. Some, such as the Royal Welsh, have had a bumper crop of visitors. Others have been dealt the harshest weather and had to cancel.

I have been immersed with our county show for many years. As anyone involved with a county agricultural show will know, the success sits firmly in the back pocket of the meteorological gods.

This year’s deluge brought a paltry attendance to the second day of the Hertfordshire Show, but not enough to dampen the spirits of a show regular whom I overheard saying: “What a wonderful show, such a shame about the weather”. When will we learn? The measure of how wonderful a show is must be on its financial performance.

But herein lies the problem: as a business, the model is fundamentally flawed. The risk and economic impact of a wet show far outweighs the relatively meagre rewards of dry conditions. But the shackles of tradition and a sense of duty cajole committees into hosting shows year after year without addressing the risk.

Our county show sits on the sharpest of urban fringes. Being so close to London, some question whether we are a true agricultural show. We are aware, and have been for some time, that our target audience are no longer farmers but those who live within a 15-mile radius of the showground. The majority of these punters are shopping enthusiasts first and foremost, but have the ability to develop a lukewarm interest in rural life when the mood, weather and shopping opportunities suit. We see ourselves as a shop window; exhibiting the best of farming and educating our visitors about all things agricultural.

A rocky road lies ahead. If the target audience is farmers, they will turn up, come rain or shine. But the non-farming audience is much more fickle. If it is too wet for a pair of jelly shoes and a T-shirt, the appeal of a day in the shopping mall or in front of the television will win over.

I believe that in the fullness of time, as future generations become more and more removed from their agricultural roots, many more shows will be faced with the same challenges that Hertfordshire currently struggles with. But there is a solution.

Although there are other ways for farming to communicate with the general public, the county show delivers. It exhibits a key strength of our industry that eludes much of society – community.

If the general public learn a little about farming and food production, and experience an iota of the euphoria that a county show gives to farmers, young and old, through community spirit, then this must be a good thing.

The question is, how do we mitigate the risk? County shows need to collaborate to survive, in the same way that farmers have. If four or five show societies pooled and consolidated their resources, the model becomes viable. They would smooth the peaks and troughs of the administrative workload more evenly across the year. They could then establish a formula for sharing profits or losses. By extending the number of show days by a multiple of the societies involved, the risk of poor weather would be reduced exponentially.

All of this would be possible with each society retaining its own show and identity. Any takers?

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