Royal Show to go

If the Canterbury A&P Show was under threat, agriculture in New Zealand would be in a very sorry state.

What then does the demise of the Royal Show at Stoneleigh in Warwickshire say about the state of agriculture in Britain?

If the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the fire-sale of Merrill Lynch were powerful symbols of the end of the City as we had come to know it, then the demise of the Royal Show, the premier farming event of the British calendar at Stoneleigh in Warwickshire, is a totem of the end of our countryside.

A&P Shows in New Zealand had some pretty lean years in the wake of the 80s’ ag-sag but most have done better in recent years, partly as a result of better farm incomes but also by adapting to attract urban people with little or no knowledge of , or interest in, farming.

Fortunately not all British Shows are under threat and those which are thriving:

. . . aren’t anymore about red-faced, burly farmers looking for a new bull and horny-handed sons of toil trading harrows. . .  They have an obligation, if they are to survive, to entertain as well as to trade. And, sad as it may be for those who have farmed the land for generations, that is a rubric for the countryside itself.

If farming is in terminal decline . . . then other uses for the countryside have to be developed and encouraged, beyond building new homes across swathes of it. And that requires both imagination and a new covenant between town and country.

As matters stand, the two are more estranged than ever. . . The new appointment of the South Downs as a National Park only serves to show how the Government believes that rural beauty is to be corralled, rather than integrated in to the rest of our economy. As a nation, we need to decide what we want from our countryside.

They also need to decide how much they’re prepared to pay for it. Farming certainly isn’t in terminal decline in New Zealand and is probably better placed than other sectors to withstand the recession. One of the reasons for that is that we were forced to enter the real world in the 1980s in contrast to our British counterparts who are still dependent on subsidies and find they and their incomes are governed by political whim rather than their markets.

But although we’re standing on our own feet there are still people and groups with strong views on what they want from and for our countryside and who want to tell us what to do and how to do it.

There is some comfort in the knowledge that the government has a better understanding and appreciation of farming than the previous one because here, as in Britain,  farmers are very much a minority and the rural-urban gap is very wide.

That’s one of the reasons that A&P shows are important, not only are they a  measure of how farming is doing, they’re also a plank on bridge between town and country.

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