Alan Crowe, Royal Ulster Agricultural Society: “You go out and show you’re open for business”
There are just over four weeks left before the Balmoral Show opens its doors to the farming community of Northern Ireland and other visitors.
From the exhibition venue outside Lisburn, Alan Crowe, managing director of the organizers of the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society, said: “Everything is going well.
“I have excavators and tractors and everything else moving behind the office here. “
Agricultural extravagance has long been a powerful symbol of NI’s attachment to the countryside and its dependence on the food industry – not to mention how farmers enjoy a good day.
Last year’s event was a victim of Covid-19. And this year there will be strict entry requirements, with ticket holders either having to be double-bitten or have evidence of antibodies or a negative test.
It was also postponed from its usual date of May to September to give the vaccination program enough time to reach as many people as possible.
Alan said it was “essential” for the event to return. “Not only personally, but as an organization, we felt it was absolutely essential that she come back.
“There is the number of businesses that are attached to the Balmoral Show, the small businesses, the contractors, the trade exhibitors, then there are the traders and the plumbers. So many jobs and businesses depend on the Balmoral Show.
He adds, “If you take people’s sanity, they’re deprived of any kind of social interaction.
“It is also very important to execute it to show that our farming and farming community and our food industries are still very much alive and active. That’s why supermarkets always have their shelves stocked, 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 anticipate 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 tickets can be sold out until the last minute the day before, as people are reluctant to plan too far in advance as government regulations and restrictions are subject to change.
“We will certainly have created a safe environment for people to enter and any controls we have will have been well documented and in place.
“It’s a huge site and we’ve taken every precaution to ensure social distancing and the proper one-way systems, as well as adequate ventilation and hand sanitization – name it, we’ve put it in place. .
“We worked daily with the Ministry of Health and the Public Health Agency. It’s a large site, over 247 acres, and we’re using just about every part of it.
“We’re pretty confident and we’re working with the authorities, it’s not just on the seat of our pants. We have widened the places where our customers will walk in the salon, we have widened the roads and aisles, and we have implemented one-way systems.
“All buildings will have open doors so that there is full ventilation and the marquees will be exactly the same. All points will be marked and crossed in accordance with what the public health authorities want. “
Marshals on the site will also keep an eye on social distancing. And in the show’s bars and restaurants, “there will be time slots with people sitting down for a while, then leaving”.
He does not dwell on the additional costs of complying with a Covid-proof regime and suggests that the company may face any loss.
“At times like this, you think less of the costs and more of the benefits it brings to NI’s economy, to sanity, to the benefits of being able to get together again.”
In 2019, more than 30,000 people showed up every day. “In a situation like this, you would certainly expect to see a little less than that.”
When asked if the company was prepared to take a loss, he replied, “whatever happens, we can adapt to the situation”.
“Otherwise, we wouldn’t. The Royal Highland Show took place behind closed doors in early June. The Royal Welsh Show is not working at all. We made the decision that it was important that if we could do it we would organize some kind of event and that is why we postponed the show from May 22 until September 25.
“We felt affection for our country and our situation, pushing it to the end of September, it gave everyone a little more chance to see how the vaccination process was going to play out.”
The timing of the issue will mark the final days before the scheduled expiration of a grace period under the NI Protocol, allowing supermarkets to bring certain foods into Northern Ireland.
It can play in the minds of many of the big players who set up booths at the show, including platinum sponsor Marks & Spencer.
But Alan doesn’t think those concerns will get in the way of participation. “No matter what situation a business finds itself in, you have to show up and show that you are committed to making things work, no matter what jurisdiction you operate in.
“The Balmoral Show is a prime example… There are billions of pounds of assets represented over the four days here and this is the backbone of promoting agriculture, which is the backbone of our economy.
“Some of our biggest sponsors like M&S, Spar, Tesco will be at the show and Brexit and the NI protocol made no difference in their thinking about it.
“I just think you can either follow a self-fulfilling prophecy or go out and show your wares and show 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’s syndrome, and Pierce, who is 20. Our son was working and someone did not get the vaccine and passed it on, so we had to isolate ourselves 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 the NFU Mutual.
“I am not from a current generation farming family, but there were two generations of farmers back. My father’s father was to inherit and did not get it. It was in Newtownhamilton, so he had to come to Belfast to find work.
“They say everyone is always a generation or two from a farm. We are that kind. But my wife’s mother is still at the farm in Fintona, so we stay there as much as possible.
He is proud of the way the Balmoral Show presents the food producers of Northern Ireland.
“There are hundreds of them on site and it’s a great opportunity for them to showcase their products. The quality of our food and our products is way above its weight for this small country, which is why it is an honor to be able to promote this for the good of all.
The organizations behind some large-scale events, such as the GAA Ulster Semifinals, worked with health trusts to set up contextual vaccination centers for participants who had not yet been bitten.
But that’s not something the Balmoral Show envisions. “We prefer to stick to government protocols that we are required to follow rather than get involved in the political process. We are a charity and we would not want 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 these political decisions.
Either way, “we’re not chasing numbers or spectators”. “It’s really fair to create a safe place, a platform to promote agriculture agriculture, food and all the other industries that will be represented.”