Tasmania's agricultural shows face uncertain future after mass COVID-related cancellations

CRUCIAL ROLE: Royal Launceston Show society member Emma Bonar says rural shows are important to the social fabric of a community. Picture: Neil Richardson
CRUCIAL ROLE: Royal Launceston Show society member Emma Bonar says rural shows are important to the social fabric of a community. Picture: Neil Richardson

Livestock pens at Northern Tasmania's agricultural showgrounds will remain silent and empty this year, after the coronavirus pandemic forced gathering restrictions.

The cap on gathering numbers has put a pin in the balloon of Tasmania's agricultural show circuit and made most nonviable.

There will be no braying of cattle or sheep, nor will there be the delighted squeals of children who make friends in the animal nursery.

While showgrounds remain still and empty, a far cry from the hustle and bustle of show day, organisers remain hopeful next year they will be back, but acknowledge there is challenge and uncertainty ahead.

It is no secret that many of Tasmania's shows have faced challenges such as dwindling crowd numbers, or low volunteer numbers, which has thrown up questions over their viability.

The Royal Launceston Show is a case in point, with its well-documented financial problems culminating in the cancellation of the traditional three-day affair for the 2018 iteration.

However, the show returned in a new one-day condensed format in 2019, which was considered a success by the Show Society.

This year, the show society voluntarily surrendered its lease of Inveresk back to the City of Launceston council, which subsequently handed the lease to the University of Tasmania.

UTAS will develop a car park for its Inveresk campus on the site, subject to the outcome of an ongoing appeal process.

While the Launceston show has faced significant financial challenges in the past, the show society has been bolstered by some fresh faces, who hope to turn the fate of the event around.

Scenes from the Royal Launceston Show in 1918. Launceston was the first show to gain the title of a Royal show for an event held outside a capital city.

Scenes from the Royal Launceston Show in 1918. Launceston was the first show to gain the title of a Royal show for an event held outside a capital city.

Emily Bonar, who has been on the committee for the past four years and has stepped into a position on the board in the last 12 months said agricultural shows played a vital role for communities.

She is one of a growing number of young farmers or agricultural professionals who are seeking to give back to their communities and get involved in the organisation of events like the show.

Mrs Bonar said agricultural shows in Tasmania play a vital role, particularly when it came to education.

"It's pivotal, the show plays a big role in the community, especially when it comes to bringing agriculture to the city," Mrs Bonar said.

"Kids come along and they can really see the animals and get involved in the process of agriculture."

Mrs Bonar grew up around the agricultural show circuit, with her parents, who were and still are heavily involved at the Scottsdale Show.

She said growing up a rural kid, being involved in the show was part and parcel of her duties on the farm.

So, when she and her husband bought a rural property at Sidmouth, it was a no-brainer she'd continue that tradition with her local show. "Not so much now but we had kids come to show and comment they thought milk came from the shop, but nowadays we get adults interested in that paddock-to-plate experience," she said.

Mrs Bonar said she was one of a few younger members of the Launceston Show Society, which provided a good mix between tradition and bringing new ideas to the table.

"We have a good mix now, at Launceston, but I am one of the youngest to be involved," she said.

"Young people need to be more active and play a role in these events because we bring new ideas to the table."

She said education was a major function of the agricultural shows, and she found more patrons were interested in it.

"Adults are really concerned about what goes into the meat that ends up on their plates," she said.

"There is a misconception out there among the general population around agricultural processes, we find people fear that we are pumping the cattle with chemicals but that's furthest from the truth."

Mrs Bonar said preparations were underway for the 2021 Royal Launceston Show and the society would hopefully be in a position to announce a new location in the near future.

However, while show committees are looking to the future, the cancellation of this year's events are likely to have far-reaching and long-term effects on their communities, a stalwart of the circuit says.

Trevor Hall, who has been involved in the Scottsdale Show for 54 years said COVID-19 had resulted in financial pressures for shows.

However, he said one of the biggest challenges yet to face Tasmanian agricultural show societies was time.

Participation in a show takes a lot of time and effort and he said regaining that momentum after so much time between events.

"The problem we have is keeping up the momentum for the exhibitors and volunteers for next year," he said.

"We are going to have to work hard and we hope that people will come back."

The Scottsdale Show is one of the largest cattle competitions and typically attracts about 3000 people through its gates.

FUTURE PLANS: Longford Show Society secretary Kristy Springer, in front of the sheep shed that will be renovated under the federal government's agricultural show grants, announced earlier this year. Picture: Paul Scambler

FUTURE PLANS: Longford Show Society secretary Kristy Springer, in front of the sheep shed that will be renovated under the federal government's agricultural show grants, announced earlier this year. Picture: Paul Scambler

Mr Hall said he was confident the Scottsdale Show would return for 2021, thanks to a strong and passionate committee, which boasts a five-year-old as a member. He said there was a good mix of people and the community supported the event in the form of business sponsorship each year.

But the challenges moving forward will be how long COVID-19 gathering restrictions will stay in place, which is mired in uncertainty.

"We all have this mindset, I think, that if we get to Christmas then coronavirus will be over and we can go back to normal but we just don't know what it's going to be like," he said.

Mr Hall said it will cost the Scottsdale Show Society $15,000 to not hold the event this year and they couldn't rely on the traditional method of community and business sponsorship.

"We don't do it for the money though, we only break even most years, but the community is really engaged with this event," he said.

"All of the money goes back into the community, so we won't know yet really, what the fall-out of not holding it will be."

In June, the federal government announced a series of grants for agricultural shows across Australia, to assist them with the financial cost of cancellation, and to provide stimulus to upgrade facilities.

One of the Northern Tasmanian show societies to receive a grant is the Longford Show Society, which will use the money to upgrade.

PAST SHOWGOERS: Oakley Hall, 6, and Ben Hall at the Scottsdale Show last year.

PAST SHOWGOERS: Oakley Hall, 6, and Ben Hall at the Scottsdale Show last year.

Secretary Kristy Springer said they held off as long as they could before announcing the cancellation of the event but the hiatus meant they could focus on upgrades to facilities to future proof later events.

"We are known as one of the most family-friendly shows in Northern Tasmania so we were definitely sad we couldn't put on the event this year," she said.

"But we are taking a break now and it gave us the opportunity to apply for these grants and make some of those upgrades.

Longford Show Society received $91,000 and will renovate and upgrade its sheep pavilion, purchase a travelling irrigator for the horse arena and purchase demountable seating and bench seating.

Ms Springer said once the renovations were complete, it would ensure the showgrounds were a great community asset.

"It's great to be able to upgrade it because then it's infrastructure that the community can have. It's not just for our show, but we have had alpaca shows held here and dog shows, who use our facilities," Ms Springer said.

The Longford and Launceston show societies are always looking for more volunteers to step up to the plate and be part of the event.

This story Meet the farmers fighting to keep Tasmania's shows alive first appeared on The Examiner.