Agricultural societies and shows: where do we go from here?
Aled Rhys Jones
Agricultural societies and shows have played a leading role in the development of agriculture and the rural economy for over two centuries. Originally established to promote best practice in the breeding of livestock and crop production through the application of science and technology, today their role covers a far greater spectrum of farming and rural life.
Whilst the charitable aims of agricultural societies remain relevant today, the way in which these aims are fulfilled is changing. Agriculture is facing a significant period of change with global commodity market volatility becoming the norm. Therefore, societies face a challenge to evolve in step with the industry whilst remaining relevant to an increasingly diverse audience.
Where do we go from here was the key question I set out to answer.
My study therefore focussed on establishing the principal functions of agricultural societies and shows, comparing their relevance to modern farming, understanding how their charitable aims are delivered, exploring the relationship between ‘the society’ and ‘the show’ and highlighting the challenges and opportunities.
I conducted the majority of my research on shows and fairs across the United Kingdom and the United States of America. The visitor profile on both sides of the Atlantic highlights a rising proportion of visitors who are not directly employed in agriculture and from non-farming backgrounds. This changing demographic is an opportunity for societies and shows to facilitate the interaction between the ‘producer’ and the ‘consumer’ with a view to informing a growing urban audience about food production. Consequently, there has been a shift in the focus of shows with greater emphasis on fostering public relations and creating a positive image of agriculture.
The image of agriculture is often associated with tradition and heritage and show organisers need to maintain the core values which are central to their identity, given the important cultural and social function they serve. But they must constantly innovate to remain fresh.
Furthermore, a society is more than just a show – and people need to know about it. Communicating the purpose of societies is essential and, in addition to telling people what they do, societies must remember to tell people why they do it.
The principle challenges that face societies include maintaining financial viability, avoiding cumbersome and ineffective governance structures, remaining relevant to young and progressive farmers, and securing public support. The opportunities, on the other hand, include: informing the wider public about farming and food production, diversifying income streams, dedicating more resources to delivering educational initiatives, introducing more commercially focussed livestock competitions, embracing technology, data analytics and digital marketing, together with establishing links with international counterparts to share information and develop future leaders.
Agricultural societies and shows play an important role within the industry and have a bright future ahead. To make the most of the opportunities outlined above and to establish a future direction, societies will need to invest in people, assets and technology to ensure strong financial stability which is essential to deliver and communicate their charitable work.