Can we keep our country shows alive?

Mitchell Tidyman, Bareback winner at the 2017 Parkes Rodeo. Showgrounds, committees, and trusts across the state face a number of challenges for their event to stay viable. Photo by Jenny Kingham.
Mitchell Tidyman, Bareback winner at the 2017 Parkes Rodeo. Showgrounds, committees, and trusts across the state face a number of challenges for their event to stay viable. Photo by Jenny Kingham.

It’s been nearly two years since Wingham last held a country show and organisers are determined to get the comeback right.

“We had to go back to the drawing board, and we’ve got some pretty exciting new things,” says press officer Elaine Turner. 

“For starters, there’s the piggy races. And the demolition derby is going to be on again too. Everyone loves that.”

Until last year, the Wingham Show had only ever been postponed once in its 131-year history. That was in 2013 due to torrential rain. 

A number of local shows have been postponed due to wet weather, management issues, ageing volunteers, and a lack of community support over the past few years. Despite this, the show movement is confident the future is bright.

A number of local shows have been postponed due to wet weather, management issues, ageing volunteers, and a lack of community support over the past few years. Despite this, the show movement is confident the future is bright.

In 2017 the hiatus was down to a managerial standoff between the show society and the showground trust over the venue’s safety.

“We’ve had more meetings with showground trust to get everything back on track and I think we’re pretty right with that now,” Mrs Turner said. 

Wingham, which will hold its 2018 show on March 9, 10 and 11, is not the only local ag event that has had to take a break in recent years.

Rain has been the chief culprit for many cancellations, particularly on the North Coast in 2017. Meanwhile, almost 30 shows were reduced or postponed in 2016 for the same reason.

But ag show representatives admit there’s a number of factors threatening the viability of the beloved community event.

While some show societies go from strength to strength others are struggling as volunteers get older.

Families are also spoiled with a number of other attractions available, and have little spare cash. Uralla and Barmedman shows are two that have fallen over due to a lack of community interest.

‘Competing for relevance’

There are more than 190 local shows in NSW that come under the umbrella of the Agricultural Societies Council. 

Each show is its own incorporated organisation, but is supported and guided by the council and the Royal Agricultural Society of NSW, which provides competition links to the Sydney Royal.

The crowd at the 2017 Taree Show. Photo by Scott Calvin.

The crowd at the 2017 Taree Show. Photo by Scott Calvin.

Grace Eppelstun, the 2016 winner of The Land Showgirl competition, is a regular at her local show at Grenfell.

“For so many towns the show has been that cornerstone event forever,” the 25-year-old said. “But we’re also competing for relevance.

Grace is now a director on the board of the Agricultural Societies Council, and is secretary of the council’s youth arm, NextGen.  

NextGen’s focus is to introduce and skill-up more young people to the show community, and help future-proof the movement.

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“For a lot of towns and communities, their show is a their oldest community organisation,” Grace said.

“Grenfell is 152 years old and we’re up to the 142nd show. A lot of the support is nostalgia. Childhood memories.

“But the marketplace has changed. We need to be promoting the relevance of shows. Keeping farm people attending. Having attractions beyond $8 rides.”

It’s easy to say young people are the future of the shows, but these committees need to be made attractive for young people

Grace Epplestun, Agricultural Societies Council board member and NextGen secretary

Grace said shows don't necessarily talk about what they do well, which often isolated good ideas. 

“As showgirl I saw a lot of, a lot of shows across the state, and they all had things they did well,” she said.

“You start to think about how that could work elsewhere.”  

Jessica Kernahan and Chantel Martin at the 2017 Gloucester Show. Photo by Scott Calvin.

Jessica Kernahan and Chantel Martin at the 2017 Gloucester Show. Photo by Scott Calvin.

In response, NextGen puts on an annual ShowSkllls seminar, which in 2017 saw 60 people from teenagers through to 50-year-olds head to Tamworth.

ShowSkills attendees share ideas and learn how to coordinate various competitions and activities, speak to a crowd, promote and event over social media, and source sponsorship.

“One event that inspired me was from the 2015 Parkes showgirl Bridget Lee,” Grace said.

“She had identified a really big gap (at the event) for families with kids.”

So the show society trusted her with a whole pavilion where she put on free kids’ activities, games and ag-related challenges.

“One of these took the kids around the whole show, like a treasure hunt like they do at the Sydney Royal - collecting different stickers from different stalls.  

“It entertained the kids, took them around the show and didn’t cost them anything.

“Those are the sort of things are going to make or break the shows.”

People power is key

Ultimately, the success of a show comes down to the people running it, according to NextGen president Hannah Barber, 27. 

“If you have a town like Parkes, it’s a bit bigger and you’ll get a lot of people naturally through the gate,” she said.

The grand parade at the 2017 Gunnedah Show. Photo via Namoi Valley Independent.

The grand parade at the 2017 Gunnedah Show. Photo via Namoi Valley Independent.

“Then you’ve got Morongla, which is a great show - and a gorgeous showground - but a very, very, very small population. So it depends a lot of the time on the people on the committee. A lot of them are getting older and so need to be bringing in young people, and skilling them up before the old people go.”

Grace agrees.

“It’s easy to say young people are the future of the shows, but these committees need to be made attractive for young people,” she said.

“Their ideas need to be welcomed, they shouldn’t be made to feel silly for for having different thoughts.”

Hannah said a focus on cheap, engaging events for a broad audience was also crucial.

“A lot of the committees might be missing out on a lot of potential help too. There are a number of grants from the RAS, ASC or state government. Some of the people in the committees just don’t know about it.”

Chainsaw events at the 2017 Taree Show. Photo by Scott Calvin.

Chainsaw events at the 2017 Taree Show. Photo by Scott Calvin.

Crown land fears 

The future of the country show - and the venues that host them - are also at the forefront of the mind of the Australasian Showmen’s Guild. The guild recently held its annual thinktank in Yatala, QLD, where crown land laws were a source of concern.  

Agricultural Societies Council group delegate Peter Gooch said members spoke with NSW Nationals’ Lismore MP Thomas George over fears that law changes could see the tenure of many showgrounds change hands, causing further tension between show societies, showground trusts, and local councils

“If you can’t guarantee the tenure on the showground for next year, how can you organise things like entertainment?” Mr Gooch said. 

Meanwhile Minister for Lands Paul Toole this week announced $17 million for the next round of government’s Public Reserves Management Fund program, which open on February 5.

The Department of Industry will also be hosting a series of regional forums in 2018 to discuss the issues facing showground trusts.