The NSW Royal Agricultural Society, home of the Sydney Royal Easter Show, celebrates 200 years

When you go to the Royal Easter Show this year, take a moment to reflect on how it all started.

Two hundred years ago, Sir Thomas Brisbane, the governor of the young British colony of Sydney, was deeply concerned about the need to produce more food.

In an effort to try and grow food crops and raise livestock on better soils, white settlers forced the native population further inland and changed the landscape to a European pattern.

Brisbane was a scientist in the British mould, and he experimented with growing tobacco, cotton and coffee and established the NSW Agricultural Society to foster a culture of experimentation and competition.

The Royal Agricultural Society (RAS), as it is known today, has since played a vital role in the promotion and development of agriculture.

Such was its impact on early European agriculture in Australia, historian Gavin Fry has compiled a book on the history of the SAR entitled Sydney Royal, Celebrating 200 Years of the Royal Agricultural Society of New South Wales.

The Royal Agricultural Society eventually shunned cash prizes in favor of prestigious sashes and medals in cattle and produce competitions.(Supplied: Royal Agricultural Society)

First errors: rabbits, foxes and blackberries

Mr Fry told ABC Rural there were a number of reasons for starting the company.

“On the one hand, there was the fact that [the British settlers’] the crops had failed,” he said.

men looking at cattle in the rain
Judging cattle in the rain at the 1927 Royal Agricultural Society show.(Supplied: Royal Agricultural Society)

“The first animals that came here, the husbandry practices were pretty ordinary and the quality of the stock declined over time over the first two decades in Australia.

“That’s why people, in their madness, have imported rabbits, foxes and all kinds of animals.

“Of course the rabbit was the biggest [problem] of them all because [while] it was cute to have bunnies hopping around in a garden, unfortunately they literally took over the place.”

Around the same time, in the early 1800s, the British were developing a more scientific approach to agriculture in their home country.

“[But] the English model, accepted practices were not going to work on the rocky shores of Port Jackson,” he said.

“So they encouraged the idea that scientific study and experimentation, cross-breeding, finding the right seed, the right plant, the right animal for the right place, was critically important.”

children on horseback
Young riders at the 1939 Sydney Royal Easter Show.(Supplied: Royal Agricultural Society)

Problem with cash prizes soon discovered

While there was initially a financial incentive to participate in the agricultural society, this eventually shifted to the awarding of medals.

‘The Royal Agricultural Society offered big prizes to reward people even at the start,’ Mr Fry said.

“They realized very quickly that rewarding ordinary people would have a big impact. [for the workers].”

man riding a bull
File image shows a man riding a Hereford bull at the Sydney Royal Easter Show.(Supplied: Royal Agricultural Society)

But organizers soon realized that the prizes awarded to farmworkers, some of whom were convicts or undertook hard labor, were disproportionate.

“If you had someone who herded sheep for 364 days of the year and got a pound at the end of it, then of course they’re going to get off and have a fantastic time and go get drunk, that that was not good for the farming business!” said Mr. Fry.

Nonetheless, an evolving RAS continued to foster a spirit of competition among farmers, which would in turn spill over to agricultural industries.

Impacts on indigenous peoples, lands

Mr. Fry’s book also recognized how the growth of agriculture has come at the expense of Indigenous peoples and the lands they have managed for thousands of years.

“The white settlers of course expanded into Parramatta and then beyond into the western part of New South Wales, and that came at a cost to the Aborigines,” he said.

Aborigines using fire to hunt kangaroos by Joseph Lycett, circa 1775-1828.
This image by Joseph Lycett, created between 1775 and 1828, shows Aborigines using fire to hunt kangaroos. Indigenous farming practices were ignored by the British.(Provided: National Library of Australia)

“It was pretty obvious that Indigenous peoples lived best on the Cumberland Plain…which had been developed over thousands of years through Indigenous land management.

“The white people just came out and said, ‘We’ve got this fabulous place for farming’…and when the native resistance [started it was seen as] a disability and dubbed “the Aboriginal problem”.

Dark Emu author Bruce Pascoe wrote about how Native agriculture, aquaculture, storage, and food preservation were undervalued and shunned by white settlers.

He told Radio National he would like to see more archaeological work to document the evidence of indigenous agriculture that was lost when Europeans arrived.

“You couldn’t do large-scale farming once the land was taken from you,” Mr Pascoe said.

The culture of innovation continues

The president of the Royal Agricultural Society of NSW, Michael Millner, said the society initially focused on improving food production simply for survival, but is now helping farmers to thrive.

“In the beginning, we were the innovators…in the early 1800s…helping people develop the Spanish merino and grain crops,” he said.

“Before something like CSIRO, there were always agricultural societies where people raised wheat and cattle and held competitions to try and improve what they were doing.

“I think it’s one of the fundamentals of excellence in agriculture and we’re still striving to improve things to this day.”

Sydney’s Royal Easter Show is Australia’s largest annual ticketed event, attracting over 828,000 attendees.

Described as a celebration of Australian culture, the show generates revenue that allows the SAR to invest in agricultural programs, competitions and education.

Amalia H. Mercado