Can our country shows survive the digital age?

Albion Park showgirl Jenna Henshaw says  the competition may need new ways to reach young people. Picture: GREG TOTMAN

Albion Park showgirl Jenna Henshaw says the competition may need new ways to reach young people. Picture: GREG TOTMAN

As show season draws to a close, EMMA SPILLETT looks at how our agricultural events will survive into the future.

As the summer sun rises on the grassy showground, the sense of anticipation in the air mixes with the buttery scent of popcorn roasting and the woody smell of timber being prepped for the wood-chop.

Organisers race around, busily polishing vegetables in the pavilion, checking cakes and chutneys conform to judging guidelines and overseeing the set-up of the ever-popular Sideshow Alley.

Such is the hustle and bustle of the agricultural show season –  a century-old tradition in the Illawarra, celebrating the region’s proud rural roots.

For more than 100 years, showgoers have flocked to their closest fair, perusing the pavilion entries before marvelling at the show-jumping and spending their spare change on home-made cakes and crafts.

'We need to focus on highlighting the agriculture that is still in the community but look at ways of reinvigorating the show.'

But in the age of Instagram, iPads and IT, where people are more interested in ‘‘selfies’’ than showgirls, can the traditional country show survive?

According to University of Wollongong human geography professor Chris Gibson, ‘‘ag shows’’ have been on the decline for decades, requiring show societies to make difficult decisions to cement their future.

 Gibson interviewed dozens of show committees as part of his research paper Reinventing Rural Places, which examined the impact of festivals in rural Australia and the issues faced by organisers.

Research revealed many shows across the country had been forced to amalgamate to survive.

The Kiama Show in years gone by. Picture: Kiama Show Society

The Kiama Show in years gone by. Picture: Kiama Show Society

‘‘Shows have been declining since the 1970s,’’  Gibson said.

‘‘Overall numbers have dropped and many have really struggled; we saw lots of amalgamations – in the past, each tiny town may have had a show, now there’s just one big regional show that eclipses the smaller events.’’

Diversification had been critical to ensuring the longevity of dozens of shows, particularly in places where the show’s life-blood – farming – had declined.

 Gibson said many show organisers had been forced to trade tradition for spectacle to boost attendance.

‘‘A lot of shows have tried to mimic the Sydney Royal Easter Show; we’ve seen rides, show-bags, motorcycle stunt shows, they’ve become more like rock concerts,’’ he said.

‘‘Organisers have focused on making the show more of a whiz-bang event rather than having that strong agricultural feature.

Showgoers are often more interested in the rides than farming. Picture: ANDY ZAKELI

Showgoers are often more interested in the rides than farming. Picture: ANDY ZAKELI

‘‘Many shows have gone towards gourmet food and wine too; they know that a new piece of harvesting equipment is not going to create enough interest but olives, cheeses and local produce will – it’s appealing to that gourmet foodie vibe.

‘‘The problem is that there is so much competition now – there are so many festivals and events – shows are just a small part of that now so they have to be competitive to survive.’’

Of all the shows Gibson and his team visited, the longest-running were those with solid community support. Strong community ties are critical.

‘‘The shows that are the most successful are those that create a sense of belonging and emotional attachment,’’ he said.

‘‘That’s why ag shows will always be a part of regional Australian life – they have those strong ties.’’

It is the community’s commitment to tradition that Kiama Show publicity officer Karen Beasley puts down to its longevity.

The show is one of the 10 oldest in Australia, marking its 166th anniversary in 2014.

Thousands of people turned out to this year’s show, braving the rain to support the local fair.

‘‘We’re lucky we’ve always had a supportive community,’’  Beasley said.

‘‘We’ve had lots of sponsors and the council has always given us in-kind help; it wants to ensure the show is sustainable.

‘‘This year we did a letterbox drop, reminding people: ‘your Kiama show needs you’ – we want the community to be involved and to feel like they belong.’’

 Beasley believes people are drawn to the show’s country traditions, noting a recent boost in attendees and exhibitors.

In 2014 alone, the show secured 2400 entries in the pavilion, up 300 on last year, and attracted visitors from across the state.

‘‘We’ve really seen people becoming re-interested in shows,’’  Beasley said.

‘‘Before the gates even opened this year, we had young people, families and out-of-town guests lining up to see the cattle and horses; I think they want to be exposed to those traditional farming practices.’’

Fresh ideas have been crucial to the show’s success, along with an ability to adapt to change.

‘‘We always have de-briefs – we delete or create classes, depending on what is popular,’’  Beasley said.

‘‘We’ve had to look at different ways of getting people in – whether it’s entertainment or rides, we’re always looking for something new...I think Kiama Show has been a bit of a leader of that.’’

But the event’s showgirl competition has struggled in the modern age, attracting just two entrants this year.

Albion Park Show, now in its 127th year, had the same problem, securing just two participants in 2013 and four this year.

The competition’s 2010 winner and now co-ordinator, Amanda Madruga, admitted getting entrants had been tough, amid misconceptions about the title and the demise of tradition.

‘‘I think a lot of possible entrants and the community perceive it as a beauty competition and it’s not that at all,’’ she said.

‘‘Yes, some of the criteria relates to grooming and being well-presented but it’s not about physical appearance.

‘‘We’re trying to challenge that, along with this lack of understanding about the show’s one of the largest events in the [community] but people often go for the rides and they’re perhaps not aware of the show’s agricultural focus.’’

While farming is no longer the main-stay of many shows, showgirl entrants are still required to demonstrate their rural knowledge, tackling questions about the region’s farming history and agricultural practices.

This year’s Albion Park showgirl and former Miss Tiny Tot Jenna Henshaw said she saw the competition as a chance to learn more about the area and brush up on her public speaking skills.

‘‘We walked around the show and just had a presence and I really loved that – I learnt so much about the area that I didn’t know and got to talk to a lot of people, it was great.’’

The 20-year-old has had a long association with the show, taking out the tiny tot showgirl competition at age five and regularly competing in the show-jumping classes.

Growing up on a 40-acre farm in Croome,  Henshaw was deeply entrenched in the area’s rural life but had been saddened to see it – and the show – struggle over the years.

‘‘We’ve definitely watched farming deplete; there used to be 50 dairy farms in the area, now there’s only a handful,’’ she said.

‘‘It’s had a flow-on effect to the show – in the 1970s, when the showgirl competition first started, they had 20 girls enter; this year, we only had four so it’s a bit sad.’’

Like Kiama Show,  Madruga said fresh blood within the organising committee at Albion Park Show had already proved successful and would sustain the event in the future.

‘‘I think shows can still have a place but there’s a lot of work that needs to be done,’’ she said.

‘‘We need to focus on highlighting the agriculture that is still in the community but look at ways of reinvigorating the show too.

‘‘The showgirl competition needs a freshen-up; that’s why I wanted to be involved – I wanted the chance to introduce new ideas.

‘‘We have to look at new ways of connecting with people – we can’t just rely on word-of-mouth any more, we need to look at things like social media to spike that interest in the younger generation.’’