Suffolk Agricultural Association held its annual general meeting on Monday. It looked back at the second show in a row to be hit by inclement weather and takings at the gate, and pinned its hopes on better fortunes in 2014. SARAH CHAMBERS went along.
06:00 01 March 2014
Suffolk is not a “show-off” county, its farming community was told when it met earlier this week.
Despite that, through the Suffolk Show “it is able to exhibit all that we are proud of and do it in a way that is friendly, understated but also very professional”, Suffolk Agricultural Association (SAA) chairman Robert Rous told members at the organisation’s annual general meeting on Monday.
Its aim this year will be to put two difficult, weather-hit years behind it, and really show what the county has to offer, its leading lights told members.
Mr Rous paid tribute to the hundreds of people who volunteer their time to the charity, and underlined the sense of identity the show gives to the county.
“As communication and travel make the world smaller it is easy for geographic communities to disappear. Suffolk could be just a part of an eastern region. I believe that it is important for communities to have a sense of belonging to an area in which they can take pride. Who can get excited in an eastern region in the same way as the South Folk selling Suffolk with its 1500 years of history?” he asked members.
The show was an opportunity to show off all that is best in the county and provide a “wonderful” family day out, he said, as well as supporting its agriculture.
“It is Suffolk’s foremost opportunity to put on an event for the people of the county that is fun, competitive but also a reminder that most of Suffolk is made up of farmland. Our daily bread has been taken for granted by us all for the last 50 years. This will not always be the case and the show provides a showcase for the link between land, farming and food so the Suffolk Show is an occasion that so many people are proud to be involved in, give of their time and money and to call ‘their show’.
“On behalf of the charity I would like to thank them, and I include the businesses who sponsor, those who give their staff time off as well as the many volunteers.”
One of the most important administrative actions of the association in 2013 was the SAA council’s adoption of a new vision for the organisation, he said. This underlined its role in strengthening the ties between Suffolk farmers and its people and agreed that the Suffolk Show should be recognised as at its core.
It spelt out its key objectives of providing a focal point for agricultural debate, putting on a successful show with a strong commercial link and engagement with agriculture, achieving credible engagement with Suffolk plc, helping to educate the public about farming and food and to be financially sustainable.
“This vision with its objectives will make decision-making much easier and I believe will rapidly show changes in the way we run our events,” he predicted.
He paid tribute to last year’s show director David Nunn and deputy show director Bill Baker and praised their efforts, and the way in which Mr Nunn had ensured that the show was packed with fun.
Sadly, chilly weather combined with a difficult economic backdrop meant gate numbers dropped by about 10,000 over the two days of Suffolk Show 2013. After the shock of 2012, when the second day of the show had to be cancelled because of dangerously high winds, it was a blow. Show organisers had been hoping for a much-deserved change in fortunes and were looking to move closer to their long-held ambition to make the show break even.
As it turned out, the SAA had to underwrite the event to the tune of around £277,000, rather than the £60,000 it was anticipating.
Taking out the exceptional year of 2012, when takings plummeted to just £778,000, the 2013 show, which brought in an income of £1.13million, made less than in either 2011, when it generated £1.263m, or nearly 11% less, and 2010, when it made £1.226m, or a fall of nearly 8%.
This year, organisers hope it will do rather better, while acknowledging its ultimate fate is very much weather-dependent.
For Mr Nunn, reaching the end of his three-year tenure, it was a disappointment not to have seen the turnaround he and the rest of the SAA had hoped for.
“It was my intention in those three years we would be able to bring the show back to at least break-even,” he said.
But following a good first year, he faced a second which included “the most difficult day of my life so far” when he had to make the heart-breaking decision to cancel the second day.
“The third show did improve, but clearly, the weather was not what we wanted,” he said. “Had we had the three year average attendance, we would have broken even if not made profit.”
But he added: “We will see the show in profitability without cutting the standard.”
He has now passed the baton to Bill Baker, who takes over as show director this year, and will work alongside deputy Mike Warner of Framlingham.
Mr Baker has his work cut out this year, but appeared to be relishing the challenge. Talking after the AGM, he said they had taken a close look at costs, but not at the expense of quality. Organisers had gone through major items such as marquees to ensure they were getting best value, and through negotiation had been able to drive some costs down and look at “obvious savings”.
There would be no radical changes this year, but Mr Baker said he had set up an early brainstorming session for the 2015 show to see how they could drive income up.
“It’ll still cost something like £1.4million to stage the show,” he said. “The content and the offering will only go up from here, it will never go down. While I’m director, the quality and content will only go one way.”
Mr Baker recalled 2005 when attendance over the two days was 95,000 against a five-year average now of about 85,000.
“We had a great show, two fantastic days of weather, the economy was booming. It almost seemed easy then,” he recalled.
Two of the incoming chairman’s major moves this year have been to lift a ban on dogs at the show which had proved unpopular in some quarters, and to allow children aged five to 14 in for free, where previously they had to pay £4 in advance or £5 on the day, thus taking full advantage of the half-term, where in practice there is often one adult to a group of children kicking their heels.
“By addressing things like kids free and dogs back at the show, we are giving people an excuse to come, rather than not to come,” he explained.
The AGM welcomed the Countess of Euston as president of the 2014 show, and East Anglian Daily Times editor Terry Hunt made SAA history when he became the first editor to be voted in as president-elect.
The Countess of Euston echoed the words of outgoing president Stephen Cobbald, who said the SAA was “the best club in the county”, when she described it as “the best club in the world”.
“I’m absolutely passionate about the Suffolk Show and I always have been and so are all my family. It’s such a treat to come,” she said.
“I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to it.”
Mr Hunt, who will become president of the 2015 show, said he was “deeply and tremendously honoured” to be chosen for the role.
Mr Cobbald thanked all those who committed themselves to the work of the association. “We have a strong brand image. We stand for something people want,” he said.