Fieldays ain't only about farming

by Karl du Fresne / 13 June, 2017
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The legendary Fieldays is now so popular it draws enough people to populate a small city.

The mystery of Mystery Creek is unsolved. Most people have heard of the place, on the banks of the Waikato, about 15 minutes south-east of Hamilton, but how it got its name is a subject of some debate. AW Reed’s Place Names of New Zealand relates a story from the 19th century about a local farmer being robbed by two assailants and shot in the wrist, and of an unidentified body being discovered in the nearby creek months later that was thought to be of one of the robbers. But Te Ara – The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand isn’t so sure. It gives three possible explanations for the name, one of which is that it commemorates a horse named Mystery that belonged to an officer in the New Zealand Wars.

But there is no mystery about what has made Mystery Creek famous. Since 1971, it has been the home of the New Zealand National Agricultural Field Days, now shortened to the questionably spelt (but eminently marketable) Fieldays.

The annual event is, like its setting, something everyone has heard of without necessarily knowing much about it, other than that marketing managers seize it as an opportunity to promote country-wide discounts on everything from utes to chainsaws.

How to describe this phenomenon, other than by saying it’s touted as the biggest farming and agricultural trade show in the Southern Hemisphere? “An A&P Show on steroids” goes some way towards conveying a sense of its size, but livestock and showjumping, staples of the traditional A&P show, are notably absent.

There are no sideshows, either. In fact, Fieldays chief executive Peter Nation says that as long as he’s in charge, there will be no Ferris wheels or ghost trains. “That’s my way of staying true to our roots.”

Fieldays is unmistakably about the primary sector, although it has grown to encompass much more than that. At the 2016 event, there were 1437 stands promoting everything from aerial robotics (drones, in layperson’s language) to whisky (single malt, from Coatesville, near Auckland).

But it’s also a place where folk can drool over tractors, cordless electric grease guns, modular drafting races and magpie traps.

“A lot of people don’t know what they’re coming to,” says Nation. “They’re pleasantly surprised to find there’s something for everyone, even if it’s agriculturally focused.”

The event’s origins can be traced to a meeting in Hamilton in 1967 at which a group of local notables – including the mayor, two Federated Farmers representatives, the editor of the Waikato Times, the vice-chancellor of the recently opened Waikato University, someone from the A&P Show Association and a PR man from the Ruakura Agricultural Research Station – talked about setting up an event that would bring town and country together.

The inspiration came from Waikato farmer John Kneebone, who had visited London’s Smithfield Show while travelling on a Nuffield scholarship. Kneebone wrote to the Waikato Times suggesting a “Town and Country Show” that would incorporate elements of the established Ruakura Farmers’ Week and the Hamilton Winter Show.

He thought it would give farmers an enjoyable outing and an opportunity to catch up with the latest developments in agriculture and farm machinery.

“A little imagination could make a really big affair of it,” Kneebone wrote. He couldn’t have known how prophetic that statement was.

Raising awareness

A steering committee was formed and a draft proposal agreed: the main aim of the show, it said, would be “to bring about a greater public awareness of the research, production, machinery and marketing involved in New Zealand’s primary industry”.

The first Field Days event was held at Hamilton’s Te Rapa racecourse in 1969, but it was plain that the venue was too small. The Mystery Creek site, bought in 1970, was first used in 1971 and has since grown to 114ha, of which 47ha consists of exhibition space. The rest is mostly parking space for the 4000 cars that stream in the gates each day of the four-day event.

Kneebone, now 82, is justifiably proud of what Fieldays has become, but he thinks it could do more. A former dairy farmer and an ex-president of Federated Farmers, he’s deeply concerned about the environmental impact of dairying and would like to see Fieldays used as a forum for raising farmers’ awareness of issues such as water allocation and effluent disposal.

Now living in Cambridge, he’s been a volunteer helper at Fieldays for years; they give him a “cushy job”, he says, as a meeter and greeter.

In the best New Zealand rural tradition, volunteers are crucial to the event. In the early days, the catering was done by the women’s division of Federated Farmers, whose members would be up at dawn in the nearby Rukuhia Hall, making sandwiches. In 1980, they went through 719 loaves of bread and 28,500 meat pies.

These days, food is provided by commercial vendors offering everything from stuffed naan bread and souvlaki to Chinese dumplings, but 200 volunteers still staff the gates and information booths and ferry VIPs around the site.

Ethos unchanged

What’s remarkable is that after nearly 50 years – Fieldays marks its jubilee next year – the event still sticks closely to the original brief. Bringing town and country together remains central to the Fieldays ethos, but more important, it has become a showcase for agricultural technology and innovation – a place where farmers can check out the latest equipment and trade delegations from overseas can see what New Zealand is up to.

It’s also where farmers come together with scientists and equipment manufacturers in a cross-fertilisation process that can lead to technological advances and productivity gains.

Jacqueline Rowarth, formerly professor of agribusiness at Waikato University, now chief scientist at the Environmental Protection Authority, has been going to Fieldays since 1976. She says the event goes some way towards filling a vacuum created in 1992, when the old Department of Scientific and Industrial Research was broken into 10 Crown research institutes and agricultural research was made subject to contestable funding.

The long-established farmers’ week hosted by the Ruakura Research Station in Hamilton East, where farmers had a chance to mingle with government farm advisers and agricultural scientists, didn’t survive the Treasury-inspired upheaval.

“We had it, and it went,” Rowarth says wistfully. “But Fieldays provides a chance for science people to talk to farmers and find out what they need help with.” That’s where innovation occurs, she says – at the intersection between disciplines.

More recently, Fieldays has set itself an additional goal: averting a looming skills shortage in the primary sector by promoting agriculture as a career.

The Ministry for Primary Industries estimates the sector will need another 50,000 well-educated workers by 2025, but Rowarth says it’s quite a challenge to get bright kids to see there is a good future in agriculture.

Shopping sprees

For many exhibitors, Fieldays is about selling stuff. Rowarth says farmers may make only token purchases on the day – perhaps a few electric fence posts (known as pigtails) or a fleecy top for one of the kids. But they’ll check out big-ticket items such as tractors, make comparisons and go home to think about it. Then they might ring their local dealer and place an order.

For some companies, Fieldays simply provides a PR platform, a chance to reinforce relationships with customers and shareholders: Nation calls it “hosting and touching”. All the major banks, for example, are there with teams of schmoozers in corporate livery.

Crucially, the event is also an opportunity for farmers to enjoy a break and socialise. The timing of the event is no accident: it’s held in June because that’s when dairy herds are dried off. But Nation – who worked for two exhibitors, ANZ and Gallagher Group, before taking over as Fieldays CEO – is at pains to stress that it’s not all about dairying.

The Hamilton-based Gallagher Group, founded by the Waikato farmer who invented the electric fence, occupies one of the most conspicuous sites. Two Gallagher brothers were on the original Fieldays organising committee.

Other high-profile stands include those of famous outdoor apparel brands: Swanndri does huge business and so does Skellerup, maker of Red Band gumboots and their spin-off Red Bandals.

On the ground

The first thing the visitor to Fieldays notices is how big it is. Even at nine in the morning, it’s a 10-minute walk to the site, past thousands of cars that have arrived earlier (farmers are accustomed to rising early and farming folk are estimated to make up roughly 70% of attendees).

On a typical day, the site has a population equivalent to that of a small provincial city. Nation recommends downloading an app that helps you navigate the massive site – and pinpoints the location of your car when you’re ready to go home.

Gumboots? Rowarth recalls years when the mud was ankle-deep, but these days the site is dry and protective footwear isn’t necessary. Plenty of attendees wear gumboots, all the same, and some of the men look as if they’ve come straight from the farm in their working clobber.

Nation isn’t exaggerating when he says most people find something to look at. One crowd-pleaser is the Tractor Pull, where highly modified tractors – some generating up to 800 horsepower – compete to drag heavy loads across soft ground against the clock.

It’s the noisiest event by far – the tractors sound like dragsters – but it’s oddly captivating. The sight of a big tractor doing wheelstands is somehow so absurd, so contrary to the notion of the tractor as a plodding workhorse, that you can’t help but cheer.

Fieldays is also one of the few places you’re likely to see competitive fencing (with posts and wire, not masks and epées) and team chainsawing events.

Comparisons with Country Calendar are hard to avoid. Like the TV show, which is still topping television ratings after more than 50 years, Fieldays provides a glimpse into a rural culture that most townies would otherwise never see. And it serves as a reminder that even in a highly urbanised society, farming remains a crucial part of the national fabric.

Fieldays, Mystery Creek, June 14-17.

This article was first published in the June 10, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


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