By Bill Gray, Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland chairman

IN FEBRUARY RHASS played host to the annual Scottish Shows Forum at the Royal Highland Centre’s Ingliston showground. Now in its fifth year, the forum provides a platform for local show organisers to come together, share best practice and assess how we can work collaboratively to promote Scottish agriculture to the wider public.

This was pre-Covid-19 lockdown and the subsequent mass cancellation of agricultural shows across the country. It is certainly a different world now, but what doesn’t diminish is the obvious enthusiasm of all the show organisers for their events.

It is therefore particularly sad that 2020 will go down as the year that most agri shows were shelved due to social distancing. It is likely that the ban of large-scale events is to continue for some time yet, so what will be the impact of few, if any, agri shows for this year?

Economic impact aside, each agri show, from Ayr to Angus and Stranraer to Skye, plays an important part in promoting Scotland’s rural sector. Folk who otherwise wouldn’t step foot near a cow, sheep or tractor for the rest of the year get nose to nose with Scotland’s thriving rural sector. We are talking significant numbers here; research from the Association of Show and Agricultural Organisations (ASAO) found that seven million people attend agri shows every year in the UK. There is no doubt that this is an important shop window that we must celebrate, protect and cherish.

Most importantly, however, is that shows provide a hub for the farming and rural community to meet, do business and above all have a few days away from the farm. In times when farmers face additional pressures, the impact of the virus is having a dramatic impact on rural workers’ mental wellbeing. RSABI, supported by RHASS, continues to see a strong demand for their services as they support farmers and their families during this time.

Taking stock in light of Covid-19

The Scottish Shows Forum plays an essential role in maintaining the success of agricultural shows across the country. The focus is placed on show organisers working together towards the common goal of promoting agriculture and allowing people to learn about and engage with where their food comes from.

Without doubt, organising and running an agricultural show is a significant undertaking. There is an incredible amount of hard work and ingenuity that is necessary to create these unique events and ensure they are successful.

Unfortunately, a great deal of this work was well underway for the 2020 shows with substantial outlays already committed. The financial impact of mass cancellations could be hugely challenging for shows large and small.

Clearly, nobody could have predicted what we are facing this year, but there will be lessons to be learned about how we can better equip and protect ourselves financially going forward.

Focusing on our purpose

Agricultural shows represent the rich heritage and history that is associated with rural Scotland, while also showcasing the ways in which the sector is continually evolving and developing to meet the demands of the future.

Despite the cancellations, some elements have been saved. For example, the RHASS Technical Innovation Awards are taking place online this year with free entry. These awards reward innovation in the design and manufacture of machines, equipment and appliances which drive efficiencies in agriculture and the wider rural sector.

One of the benefits of local shows is that visitors meet with the farmers who supply their meat, grains or vegetables from their fields just down the road. While this won’t happen at shows this year, it is happening now with producers and local farm shops which have pivoted their businesses so they can deliver directly to consumers’ doors. This will no doubt deepen and reinforce the connection between farm and fork.

The impact of panic buying, food shortages and the need to buy local that has placed the farmer at the heart of the food chain will perhaps have a positive outcome for our industry. It is important that we work hard to reinforce this connection so as to have a lasting positive impact from this terrible situation.

Our community is our greatest asset

Volunteers are at the heart of every agricultural show with many people participating and contributing to these events purely out of their passion for the sector and the desire to share their enthusiasm.

With a strong sense of community at present, perhaps now is a good time to capture and nurture this connection to food and farmers. By focusing on this now, we could build a cohort of supporters who can come together again next year.

Now is the time to think beyond show days

Sponsorship is a key part of delivering a profitable agricultural show. While physical shows are cancelled, there is still an opportunity for organisers to connect brands with their highly-engaged audiences on social media.

With events going online, perhaps there is an opportunity for virtual demonstrations of new products, live tastings, judging and even shindigs, thereby creating a much-needed revenue stream for shows. Hopefully connections made in these virtual times can develop into long standing associations in the future, delivering real value and a lasting legacy.

Let’s continue to connect

It is important at this time not to forget about our local visitor base who are feeling deeply disappointed that their local show is not taking place.

To avoid them missing out, creating engaging, fun social media posts can work wonders to ensure your loyal fan base remains connected even now when the show is not taking place. Examples of content that resonates could be linking to local farm shops that deliver fresh seasonal produce, advice on how to exercise responsibly in the countryside, or simply sharing great show memories of previous years’ shows. All of which will remind audiences of better times and hopefully engage with them for future events.

Coronavirus - what will we remember?

When we look back at this time, the time that Covid-19 paralysed the world, separated families and brought the country to the brink of collapse, what will we remember?

There is no doubt that some businesses will emerge with a deeper, more meaningful relationship with their customers and while nobody can say it is ‘business as usual’, we will recover and shows will return in 2021 – which is why it is important that show organisers continue to communicate and give something of value to the people that matter to them.

The show will go on

While the overarching influence and importance of local agricultural shows cannot be overstated, we are faced with a year when many will not take place.

However, life will return to a new normal and it is important that we look ahead and plan for the next time, when we can again shine a light on our thriving rural sector.

At the Royal Highland Show, we are already considering what the 2021 event will look like and we look forward to the next Show Forum when we can come together as a group again to consider ‘what next?’