David Behrens: A Great Yorkshire Show of support for farming with one exception '“ Ministers

THERE is no better place to spend the second week in July than at the Great Yorkshire Show, and this year the experience was made better still by the news, a fortnight in advance, that it wasn't going to rain.

Crowds at the Great Yorkshire Show
Crowds at the Great Yorkshire Show

The back road out to Otley was also clearer than usual on the first two days, as everyone made an early dash to get home and turn on the TV. I wonder why.

In an age in which so many demands are made on our time, the fact that thousands of us still choose to descend on Harrogate, to shop, to admire the animals and to pay homage to the farming community on whom we depend to put food on our plates, warms the cockles. Many of the visitors are part of that community; those of us who are not find that the closeness to nature connects us to our inner selves.

Yet I find myself wondering, as the Grand Cattle Parade goes past, whether there is something of the hypocrite about me. Is it wrong to admire the magnificence of the prize animals, decorated with their rosettes and sashes, and then go away and spread horseradish on a beef sandwich?

The commentary over the Tannoy mitigated my guilt. Breeds of cattle were noted for their “high level of marbling in the meat”. Besides, the nature of the food chain is that we eat or are eaten. To an angry bull, I am just a side dish.

At the other side of the showground, the conflict was harder to resolve. The small animals building was alive with around 150 prize rabbits, but just down Seventh Avenue, Rosemary Shrager was cooking tea with other rabbits who appeared to have drawn only the booby prize. There are two pet rabbits in my garden, so I’m taking their side.

An innovation this year was a giant video screen on the President’s Lawn, on which film clips of shows past were played. These had been compiled by the Yorkshire Film Archive, and it was striking to see just how little things had changed over the decades. On lawns where burger vans now stand, afternoon tea was served by waitresses in white aprons, on trestle tables laid with cloths – but the other business the ritual of farmers unloading their stock and displaying their animals was timeless.

Colour footage from 1957 showed the Queen in attendance. She watched a bull competition and met members of the Canadian Mounted Police, who gave a demonstration of synchronised riding not unlike the one this week by the French stuntman, Lorenzo.

I was present for the Queen’s next visit, exactly 20 years later, in her Silver Jubilee year. It was my first show and I was awed by the scale of it. There were enough of us in the press room alone to fill a medium-sized pub.

Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary, was supposed to visit on Thursday but he bailed at the last minute and sent his Farming Minister, George Eustice, instead. Those of us who had been tempted to put a fiver on Mr Gove announcing a challenge for his party leadership that morning were glad we had kept our money in our pockets.

It fell to Mr Eustice to announce that the Government would miss its target for publishing details about its new farming policy. This admission which went down badly with the show director Charles Mills – himself a farmer. “Quite frankly, farmers want straightforward talking, straightforward answers and now – not in 12 months’ time,” said Mr Mills. He then added even more forcefully: “I am a farmer and I will stand up and be counted.”

Mr Mills clearly unsettled the Minister, especially if he had been expecting the courtesies afforded to Princess Anne the previous day.

Farming, as the director pointed out, is a long game – whether in crop planting or animal breeding. You can’t sew in East Yorkshire while mandarins in Whitehall are still arguing over the ground rules.

For everyone else who contributed to this week’s event, the Great Yorkshire Show is not merely a big day out, to be filed away in a drawer of pleasant memories until next July – it is their daily bread.

It is also an opportunity to make their voice heard while the rest of us are listening – and the support from the wider community to which the audience numbers bear witness should not be under-estimated by Mr Eustice. He lets down the farming community and he lets down us all.