David Behrens: Visiting agricultural shows is an education in realities of life

Four-year-old Henry Hall exercises his texel cross sheep at last year's Otley Show
Four-year-old Henry Hall exercises his texel cross sheep at last year's Otley Show
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THEY understood, during the Second World War, what many today seem to have forgotten, or choose to ignore: the importance of farming, not just to the economy and the landscape, but to all of our lives. Without farmers, the rest of us don’t eat.

That’s why it was a reserved occupation during the war, alongside policing, putting out fires and healing the sick.

It’s a timely observation, for today marks the start of the agricultural show season in Yorkshire. It begins this morning at Bridge End in Otley, climaxes at the Great Yorkshire showground in Harrogate in the second week of July and concludes in what we may hope will be the autumn sunshine over Nidderdale in September.

There is something wonderfully primordial about farmers showing off their animals to each other and to the public, and the fact that the tradition not only survives but thrives in a throwaway, self-absorbed society like ours is proof that some values are indelible.

It’s a custom we should cherish, because all it could take, God forbid, is a disastrous outbreak of a transmittable disease to shut it down.

Indeed, even today, the Otley Show goes ahead without its customary poultry classes, which were abandoned at almost the last minute after two cases of avian flu across the Pennines.

The evolution of the traditional agricultural show has its roots in another social tradition embedded deep within our regional character: Betting. Local record has it that when the first Otley Show was held in 1796, in the market square outside what is now Barclays Bank, substantial sums were laid down as wagers on the livestock classes. It was not until subsequent decades, and under the tempering influence of Lord Harewood, that a more regulated framework was constructed. Despite interruptions for war and disease, it continues to this day.

But the continued celebration of the past depends – as Theresa May might say – on a strong and stable future for our agricultural communities, and in a climate of Brexit, not to mention her unnecessary demand for a new mandate, that sustainability can’t easily be taken for granted.

Community events like today’s show at Otley perform a valuable function in educating future generations in the ways of the land. In this respect, they are more effective than anything written down in the national curriculum.

Here’s the evidence: in a survey of schoolchildren by Asda last autumn, 41 per cent didn’t know that eggs came from chickens, and a quarter thought chicken could only be cooked on a barbecue.

If the BBC were to screen its April Fools reel from the 1950s today, the one about spaghetti growing on trees, I doubt if many young people would even question it. For goodness sake, some of them think kale is a boy’s name.

The Otley Show is a perfect family day out because it falls each year on a Saturday, but the Great Yorkshire Show, midweek in term time, is another story. Schools are being made to clamp down on parents taking their children out of class, and a policy intended to discourage mid-term holidays when prices are lower and foreign climates more equitable, is being applied indiscriminately to the detriment of events the education community ought to be embracing.

The capacity of the showground notwithstanding, there is a strong case for making attendance at the Yorkshire Show not only admissible but compulsory. As it is, the organisers are having to write to the Department for Education so that they may send along civil servants to assess its merits.

The National Farmers’ Union has made the provision of an education system that supports British agriculture a key plank of its election manifesto, so that, at the very least, children and families understand the importance of food production and provenance. It is an aspiration that every candidate, regardless of party affiliation, can and should support. Not every MP serves a rural constituency but all of them – vegetarian, vegan or neither – eat the food produced therein.

That’s why, should you meet your candidate between now and June 8, you might want to ask what she or 
he will do to ensure that, even 
in peacetime, farming remains a reserved occupation.