Suffolk Show organisers faced swingeing cost rises last year - which led to "significant" financial pressures across the board, its annual accounts reveal.

Suffolk Agricultural Association (SAA) faced a net operating shortfall of £619k in its financial year to September 30, 2023 - as a result of rising costs in key areas such as marquees, food and utilities. This compares to a cash gap of £320k in 2022.

During the year the organisation made £3.171m from its various activities including the show - but overall it spent around £3.79m. 

East Anglian Daily Times:

This was despite a huge turnout of more than 90,000 people over the two days of last year's flagship event - and the welcome return of traders following the pandemic.

As a charity the SAA's aim is to try to break even - although it does have a strong balance sheet of investments to fall back on. But the going last year was particularly tough.

It holds events which promote the agricultural industry and educate the public about the work farmers do.

It was particularly proud to welcome a royal visitor - the Duchess of Edinburgh - to its annual School Farm and Country Fair (SFCF) in April which brought 3,917 children into contact with farming.

East Anglian Daily Times:

Trustees said with Covid behind them, 2023 was at that point looking more promising - but challenging economic conditions meant they faced a near tripling of utilities costs while the value of their investment portfolio reduced and the cost of borrowing rose.

"That said, while acknowledging the income and expenditure account shows a deficit and that the cash position has deteriorated since the prior year, the business has traded with confidence," the board said.

East Anglian Daily Times:

"The show was more reflective of the 2019 event - rather than the 2022 bounceback from Covid year additionally boosted by the Platinum Jubilee events at that event."

The SAA's commercial arm - Trinity Park Events Ltd (TPEL) - sustained a small loss in spite of positive trading and a successful Christmas Party season. This was due to the impact of inflation on operating costs and a reduction in sales of alcohol at events, the SAA said.

In response to the challenges it faces, the association has been keen to diversify and create more income streams.

These include signing up Ipswich Croquet Club on a 25-year tenancy on a 1.5-acre plot at the showground and the arrival of Essex and Suffolk Medical Ltd, a private provider of medical services, which has taken up residency in the SAA's newly refurbished old cups and trophies building.

In the SAA's annual review, chairman Bill Baker said they were "incredibly proud" of the work the charity did to fulfil its charitable objectives - but acknowledged the pressures it faced.

"While operationally we have so much to be proud of, we cannot deny the significant financial pressures inflicted upon us eg, post-Covid impacts, rising costs, particularly utility charges, have impacted across the whole business and is reflected in our financial statements for the year," he said.

"The board has been keenly focused on improving the financial position and has already implemented a plan to combat rising costs while maintaining the quality of events that we stage, most notably the Suffolk Show."

Show director John Taylor - who began his three years in post last year - said he was "absolutely thrilled" at the number of visitors that poured through the gates over the two days.

East Anglian Daily Times:

"This really demonstrated an appetite for a county show in Suffolk with another year of near record attendance numbers," he said.

"Just over 90,000 people visited the show over the two days with Trinity Park enjoying a fabulous atmosphere of family fun.

"My personal aim was to create a strong agricultural theme and message at the show. This involved having four key areas so that the first and last thing our visitors saw was food production being demonstrated.

"Our new area, Farm4Future, proved very popular and brought various dignitaries to the show - including Thérèse Coffey, the then-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs."

He admitted that he was very concerned that following the two-year absence due to the pandemic, businesses would prefer trading online and would not return to the show.

"But, amazingly, we welcomed over 600 trade stands over the two days - signalling return to pre-pandemic levels," he said. 

Sponsorship income also exceeded expectations as a record number of diners took advantage of the hospitality provided in the Sponsors' Lounge, he added.

Chief executive Phillip Ainsworth said 2023 saw a return to a "more normal" period.

East Anglian Daily Times:

"Covid now seems a rather distant memory, and as an organisation we have focused entirely on looking to the future while acknowledging that Covid has had longer term impacts - particularly on the finances of the organisation," he said.

But the SAA was delighted to welcome Shân Bendall to the education team in March and Shannon Hannah, who has taken the lead for commercial sales and marketing in TPEL as sales manager.

The arrival of Shân enabled the SAA to significantly increase its education capacity and to refocus on the many educational activities, he said.

These had become difficult to deliver as a consequence of both the Covid legacy - and the shrinking of the Trinity Park workforce some months before, he explained.

Show president Stephen Fletcher praised the new Farm4Future area at the Suffolk Show - against a backdrop of a 40% reliance in the UK on imported food.

East Anglian Daily Times:

"This area was designed to introduce visitors to the farming practices of the future, and the role that technological innovation and advances will play in delivering food to our table," he said.

"It enabled visitors to the show to see how farmers will make the best use of our soil, labour and water resources, and at the same time, achieve the government's desire to protect and enhance the environment for our wildlife.

"Signs that big changes are afoot are widespread, with new capital and people and companies carving niches in established farming sectors.

"Suffolk is renowned as a leading agricultural county, and the show is a leader amongst its peers nationally."

He welcomed government plans introduced at the show by Thérèse Coffey to boost rural communities by improving planning, housing, IT connectivity, transport, jobs and tackling rural crime.

"The rural economy is 19% less productive than the national average, and so with the right initiatives in place, closing that gap could add a further £43bn to national Gross Domestic Product (GDP)," he said.

He added that he received numerous letters after the show, and a typical one said: "We thought that this year's show was superb, very Suffolk, and great fun. A colossal amount of talent and expertise was on display, immensely varied, and beautifully displayed. The work put into staging such a show each year is staggering. Congratulations to all."

East Anglian Daily Times:

In 2023 Mike Harris stepped down as senior steward for light horses after a 10-year tenure and will be succeeded by James Nunn.

Nick Brown has also stepped down as senior health and safety steward - as has senior vet Jake Waddilove, with Ben Ryder-Davies taking up the role. 

The SAA annual general meeting is due to take place at Trinity Park, Ipswich, on Tuesday, February 27.