Third time lucky for Bruce as Suffolk Show prepares for lift-off

Bruce Kerr, Suffolk Show Director. Picture: Sarah Lucy Brown

Three years after becoming Suffolk Show director, Bruce Kerr is preparing to launch his first show - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

No other Suffolk Show director could lay claim to having endured more knock-backs than Bruce Kerr.

When the top Suffolk farmer succeeded Bee Kemball – its first female director – to the highly-prestigious three-year role back in 2019 he was full of hope and expectation.

Yet nearly three years on, he has yet to experience the thrill of presiding over the county’s biggest and brightest two-day farming bash attended by 90k-plus people.

He’s not unique of course – many event organisers up and down the country have faced a very long and agonising wait for the coronavirus crisis to subside.

But this week the news is good – the government has scrapped its Plan B Covid restrictions as it charts a course out of the pandemic.

With more than 90% of over-60s now protected by booster vaccine jabs and with Omicron outbreaks seemingly past their peak, prime minister Boris Johnson is relaxing the rules and says face masks will no longer be mandatory anywhere from now.

This provides a welcome boost for show organisers and Bruce – who runs a family farm operation on the coast near Woodbridge growing prized crops such as Suffolk asparagus – is upbeat and full of good cheer.

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“The relaxing of Plan B will be very good news. We have made decisions about how we implement a safe show – and it looks as though we’ll have a much more relaxed show,” he says.

It’s a great honour to be chosen to lead one of the county’s biggest and most enduring events – so the role is one that farmers covet.

Even years later they will look back on their tenure as a golden time – and cherish the memories. Live events involving thousands of people and animals never go quite to plan, of course, but those few to have held the top post will tell you the highs far exceed the lows. 

The only farmers of recent times whose experiences come close to those of Bruce’s is David Nunn of Mendlesham, who had to cancel a show day in 2012 due to perilously high winds, but more directly John Wall of Framlingham, who oversaw the cancellation of the 2001 show due to a foot-and-mouth outbreak which closed down the countryside. And it was to John Wall’s experiences that Bruce turned first as he looked at how to navigate his way through a human disease crisis of a different order, poring over the documents of the time to see how the SAA dealt with it and absorbing the lessons.

The momentous decision to cancel the 2020 event was taken in late February – a month before the UK locked down. The decision on the 2021 event came much earlier and the show team in each case felt the advice they received from SAA medical officer Richard West and veterinary officer Jake Waddilove was second-to-none. Richard had been “spot on” from day one with the advice he gave, and Jake, who had been involved in the foot-and-mouth decision all those years ago, was equally able to provide expert insights which made the decision-making process easy, says Bruce.

The Suffolk Show is an annual event organised by farm charity the Suffolk Agricultural Association and it takes place at Trinity Park, Ipswich.

It takes the dedicated team of volunteer farmers a year to get off the ground – backed by a small team of paid employees at the SAA.

Bruce is in the unique position of effectively having three “deputies” – James Nunn, Tony Pulham and show director-elect John Taylor, who will run the 2023 event. Senior stewards are also hard at work in their respective areas.

“Fundamentally it’s a massive team and I’m only the front guy,” he says.

Despite all the angst and heartache, it’s that support from the show “family” which has sustained him through challenging times, he adds.

Bruce would be entitled to feel cheated at only getting one shot at the show – as it’s a three-year post – but far from it. Mainly because of the sense of purpose and the strong bonds he has formed with other farmers through his work at the SAA.

“I don’t feel two cheated at all,” he says. Yes, he had to be the bearer of bad news two years in a row – but that’s the job, he reasons. “That’s the nature of the beast – somebody has to take it on the chin. I have to say I have enjoyed it but it’s not what I expected it to be. We should be there on the home run of the three shows.”

He adds: “The show committee and the show to me is like family, and that family has held together in a difficult time as you would expect.”

He was struck particularly that many sponsors and standholders had not asked for refunds when the event didn’t go ahead – and instead decided to leave their money where it was and look to the future.

“Families go through all sorts of emotions in difficult times,” he says. “I feel that with the camaraderie we have with the show committee and the volunteers and I would say in a weird way it’s stronger.”

It’s been a more intensive build-up than normal – monthly meetings to keep on top of things rather than two-monthly – in order to keep the team sharp. Among the challenges they have overcome is securing marquees in a market which has changed radically over the course of the last two years. 

The team has reverted to online Teams briefings but there’s no substitute for face-to-face for certain things, says Bruce.

The farmer has been with the SAA for about 25 years – having been co-opted on his in 20s. It’s rare among the SAA ranks even to disagree as the team pulls together very quickly, he says.

Only two big decisions in his memory ever even went to a vote as unanimity has been the norm. And those two were allowing under-15s free entry because of the potential financial hit to the “break-even” event and the banning of dogs – which was later rescinded.

It’s a friendly group and the build-up is a great time to strengthen those bonds. And, of course, putting it together can be tough – but it’s also hugely enjoyable.

“I’m always excited about the show,” says Bruce. “It’s a buzz – and it’s a buzz afterwards.”

The SAA is due to hold its AGM on February 15.

Tickets for 2022 Suffolk Show are now on sale. To take advantage of early bird online offers go to Children aged under 15 go free, and this year for the first time, parking will also be free.