OPINION: Country shows need to modernise fast

Sad news that yet another show will no longer open to the public.

The East of England used to be a major event in the show calendar, full of shiny farm machinery, country outfitters and cattle classes. But 200 years of history have not prevented it from becoming the latest victim of a worrying modern trend: the disappearing agricultural show.

In fact this year will be ‘make or break’ for many show societies after the horrors of 2012. But few have addressed the two most significant areas of weakness. The two Fs: finances affected by weather, and food.

The agricultural show’s exposure to the vagaries of the English weather is well-documented and I have bored many people with my hobby horse that a collaborative administration is the way forward. If four or five shows amalgamated (and slimlined) their admin team, they would not only reduce costs involved with bookings, entries and hiring marquees, it would also make it more effective, (killing five birds with one stone, so to speak). And those societies could devise a simple formula to divide gate receipts pro rata, hedging the risk of the inclement weather over the sum of the show days.

But instead of hedging the risk, the stock reaction to last year’s washout by most show societies has been to cross their toes as well as their fingers and pray that the weather Gods are kind.

Our county show in Hertfordshire had a glorious two days a fortnight ago, Perhaps our best show ever, but the truth of it is, a day earlier and we would have been washed out and two days later and we would have been huddling around a gas fire in the members’ tent bemoaning our luck.

The agricultural show is a wonderful event when the weather is kind. A shop window of all that is good about farming, but it must move into the 21st century and adapt its business model to be more robust to the financial consequence of a wet show day.

A more fixable problem, meanwhile, still exists among too many shows. Why is it that the food on offer at this ‘shop window’ is still dominated by greasy burger vans and members tents serving exorbitantly priced overcooked carveries with brown ‘greens’?

From an early age, the irony was never lost on me when a salesman or tradesman under-presented themselves. Why would you use a barber with the unkempt greasy locks, or a shoe shop where the proprietor wore shoes with holes in the soles? Well you probably wouldn’t. Then why at an agricultural show, where we are trying to promote the Best of British farming, should the public be served poor-quality food?

It doesn’t make sense for any show society to allow this to happen. It portrays an industry that either produces poor food or doesn’t pride itself enough. We should only sell the very best to an audience who, by and large, are visiting to find out about farming.

I know there are often food tents and halls showing off and selling the best of local produce, but most show-goers will still ‘dine out’ at the burger van or, if members, in the appropriate tent. Too often both alternatives are delivering a PR own goal of Gerald Ratner proportions.

So when asked recently about the future of the ag show, I replied that the future was bright, so long as shows looked after their 2 ‘Fs’. Their response was predictable. “But there’s no F in show.”

There won’t be if you don’t look after the food and the finances.

Ian Pigott farms 700ha in Hertfordshire. The farm is a LEAF demonstration unit. Ian is also the founder of Open Farm Sunday.

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