It’s showtime. Revamped country shows bringing new life to communities.

Tom “The Mouth” Vandeleur calling the pig diving at Bendigo Show. Photo:Simon Schluter

Published in The Age, October 31, 2015
By Peter Barrett

His family call him “the mouth” of the outfit and, dressed in large cowboy hat and two-tone rhinestone jacket, Pig Racing Australia’s Tom Vandeleur is hard to miss. Each year Vandeleur, who founded his swine-based entertainment business 22 years ago in Murray Bridge, SA, travels with a team of three diving and eight racing pigs to the country show “majors”.

Miss Piggy, one of Pig Racing Australia's diving pigs performing at the Bendigo Show, 2015. Photo: Simon Schluter
Miss Piggy, one of Pig Racing Australia’s diving pigs performing at the Bendigo Show, 2015. Photo: Simon Schluter

This year the circuit included Alice Springs, Darwin, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, Geelong and finally here, at Bendigo.

“As far as entertainment goes, you have to be able to put on something that you can sell,” says Vandeleur of the recent challenges agricultural shows have been facing over relevancy and patronage.

“And if you haven’t got something you can sell, forget about it because you’re just going be in the same old mores.”

It may be Vandeleur’s last gig for the year but in Victoria the country show calendar is in full swing, with up to six shows every weekend for the next month. This weekend you can choose from Clydesdales at Castlemaine, apprentice chef cook-offs at Warrnambool, showjumping at Sale and ever-popular gumboot throwing at Dookie.

This year Victoria will host 115 country shows and 10 field days (showcases for new farming machinery). Many have been around for more than 100 years – Warrnambool, for example, is celebrating its 162nd anniversary.

But behind the scenes not everything is hunky dory. In recent times, says Rod Bowles, executive officer of Victorian Agricultural Shows and secretary of the Bendigo Show, committees have been struggling to pass on the organising baton to the next generation.

“It’s a matter of getting young, enthusiastic volunteers,” he says. “I suppose it’s a changing world.

The Bendigo Show, 2015. Photo: Simon Schluter
The Bendigo Show, 2015. Photo: Simon Schluter

Volunteers aren’t out there like they used to be, everyone’s got a busy lifestyle and you’ve got to work to earn a living. Whereas farmers used to be on the farm and were able to give to the community and still milk the cows.”

Unless you are a big operator, he says, most farmers have to work extra jobs to make ends meet. Country shows have also been under pressure from an expanded calendar of competing agricultural field days and other community festivals.

So, now that shows are no longer the big annual social event for rural communities, are they still relevant?

About 2½ hours’ drive south-west of Melbourne, show convener Amanda Manifold, 45, thinks so. She has been helping to revitalise the Camperdown Show, which she described as “dead” just a few years ago.

“The grounds were looking really sad, there was just nothing to see. All that was keeping it together was the regular horse and cattle sections,” she recalls.

Because of its small size and calendar clashes, Camperdown doesn’t attract members of the Victorian Showmen’s Guild, that nomadic tribe who travel the country with their rides, games and canteen services. Instead, Manifold and the Camperdown committee thought creatively, encouraged more trade sites, enlisted a vintage hay-making machine and brought back the wood chopping competition.

It worked, with Manifold reporting increased traffic, a home craft section up by 500 per cent and even visitors from Melbourne to this year’s event, held earlier in the month.

“We’re just trying to push the community back together,” she says. “It feels like community these days is very difficult to gather. We just seem to be all busy with our own lives and not thinking about catching up…I genuinely feel proud of what we’ve been able to do in the past two years.”

Time will tell whether Manifold and others like her are successful. But in the meantime, it may be worth visiting your favourite country show before it’s too late.

Read the story as originally published online here.