Alan Crowe, Royal Ulster Agricultural Society: ‘You go out and show you’re open for business’
There are just over four weeks to go before the Balmoral Show opens its doors to the Northern Ireland farming community and other visitors.
From the show venue outside Lisburn, Alan Crowe, chief executive of organizers the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society, said: “Everything is preparing well.
“I have excavators and tractors and everything else moving behind the desk here.”
The farming extravaganza has long been a powerful symbol of NI’s devotion to the countryside and its dependence on the agribusiness, not to mention the farmers’ delight in having a good day.
Last year’s event fell victim to Covid-19. And this year there will be strict entry requirements with ticket holders having to either have been double-strike or have evidence of antibodies or a negative test.
It has also been postponed from its usual May date to September to give the vaccination program enough time to reach as many people as possible.
Alan says it was “essential” for the event to return. “Not just personally, but as an organization, we felt it was absolutely essential that he return.
“There’s the amount of business that’s attached to the Balmoral Show, the small businesses, the contractors, the trade exhibitors, and then there’s the trades people and the plumbers. So many jobs and businesses depend on the Balmoral Show.
He adds, “If you take people’s mental health, they’ve been deprived of any kind of social interaction.
“It is also very important to perform it to show that our agricultural and agricultural community and our food industries are still alive and functioning. That’s why supermarkets still have their shelves full, because of all their work behind the scenes.
Tickets have gone on sale for the event, and Alan says there has been constant risk assessment with public authorities on how to handle visitors.
But he doesn’t say if they are anticipating a certain number. “In 2019 we had something like over 134,000 over the four days and we don’t have a specific number at this time.”
He suggests that tickets can be sold out until the last minute the night before, as people are reluctant to plan too far in advance as government regulations and restrictions tend to change.
“We will certainly have created a safe environment for people to enter and any checks we have will have been well documented and publicized.
“It’s a huge site and we’ve taken every precaution to ensure the right social distancing and one-way systems, along with proper ventilation and hand sanitizing – you name it, we’ve put it in square.
“We worked daily with the Ministry of Health and the Public Health Agency. It’s a big site, over 247 acres and we’re using almost every part of it.
“We’re pretty confident and we’re working with the authorities, it’s not just the seat of our pants. We’ve widened where our customers will walk through the salon, we’ve widened the roads and walkways, and implemented one-way systems.
“All buildings will have open doors so there is full ventilation and the marquees will be exactly the same. All is will be dotted and crossed out as required by public health authorities.
Marshals on site will also be keeping tabs on social distancing. And in the show’s bars and restaurants, “there will be time slots where people sit down for a while and then leave.”
It does not dwell on the additional costs of adhering to a Covid-proof regime and suggests society can afford any losses.
“At times like this, you think less about the costs and more about the benefits it brings to NI’s economy, to mental health, to the benefits of being able to come together again.”
In 2019, more than 30,000 people showed up every day. “In a situation like this, you would expect to see certainly a little less than that.”
When asked if the company is prepared to take a loss, he replies that “whatever happens, we can adapt to the situation”.
“Otherwise we wouldn’t be doing it. The Royal Highland Show took place behind closed doors in early June. The Royal Welsh Show is not running at all. We made the decision that it was important that if we could do it, we had some kind of event and that’s why we postponed the May show to September 22-25.
“We felt for our country and our circumstances, pushing it back until the end of September gave everyone a bit more of a chance to see how the vaccination process would unfold.”
The show’s schedule will mark the final days before a grace period under the NI protocol is due to expire, allowing supermarkets to bring certain foods into Northern Ireland.
This may be on the minds of many big players who set up stands at the show, including platinum sponsor Marks & Spencer.
But Alan doesn’t think these concerns will hinder participation. “No matter what situation a business finds itself in, you have to put yourself forward and show that you are committed to making things work, regardless of the jurisdiction in which you operate.
“The Balmoral Show is a great example of this… There are billions of pounds of assets represented over the four days here and it is the mainstay of promoting agriculture, which is the mainstay of our economy.
“Some of our biggest sponsors like M&S, Spar, Tesco, will be at the show and at Brexit and the NI protocol has made no difference in their thinking on this.
“I would just say you can either follow a self-fulfilling prophecy or go out and show off your wares and show that you’re open and alive for business.”
Covid-19 has affected Alan and his family, who live in Portstewart. “Two of our three children have tested positive – Cameron, who is 13, and has Down syndrome, and Pierce, who is 20. Our son was working and someone didn’t get the vaccine and passed it on, so we had to self-isolate for 10 days. But the symptoms were very mild for both of them and they are young and healthy.
He and his wife Una also have a 21-year-old daughter.
He has always had an affinity for agriculture and worked in the 1980s and 1990s for the NFU and NFU Mutual.
“I don’t come from a current generation farming family, but two generations ago there was farming. My father’s father was to inherit and didn’t get it. It was in Newtownhamilton, so he had to come to Belfast to find work.
“They say everyone is always one or two generations away from a farm. We are that kind. But my wife’s mother is still on the farm in Fintona, so we go down there as much as we can.
He is proud of the way the Balmoral Show showcases Northern Ireland’s food producers.
“There are hundreds of them on site and it’s a great opportunity for them to promote their products. The quality of our food and produce is way above its weight for this small country, which is why it is an honor to be able to promote this for the benefit of all.
The organizations behind some large-scale events, such as the Ulster GAA semi-finals, worked with health trusts to set up pop-up vaccination centers for participants who had not yet been bitten.
But that’s not something the Balmoral Show is considering. “We would rather just stick to the government protocols that we are required to follow than get involved in the political process. We are a charitable organization and we would not like to get involved in political situations in any form. We just play with what the government wants and leave it to others who are better placed to make those policy decisions.
Be that as it may, “we are not running after the figures, nor after the spectators”. “It’s really just to create a safe place, a platform to promote agricultural agriculture, food and all the other industries that will be represented.”