Agri-Expo celebrates 190 years of excellence

Agricultural icons, Alan Winde and Joyene Isaacs, were honoured with the newly established Agri-Expo Honorary Award on Monday 29 November. Photo: Supplied/Agri-expo

Agricultural icons Alan Winde and Joyene Isaacs were honoured with the newly established Agri-Expo Honorary Award on Monday 29 November. Photo: Supplied/Agri-expo

Agri-Expo, the oldest agricultural society in Africa, recently celebrated 190 years of existence and 25 years of innovation by honouring prominent agricultural role players in the country.

This firmly established organisation does not only boast with its ability to remain in existence for over a century; it has survived even during the difficult period of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Agri-Expo chief executive officer Johan Ehlers said the organisation was the only organisation in the world that could host a dairy championship consecutively in 2020 and 2021 during the pandemic. “I am very proud of how the Agri-Expo team embraces challenges and then creates new opportunities with innovative ideas,” said Ehlers.

Food For Mzansi caught up with Ehlers to find out what has kept the organisation going and more about the challenges they have faced and overcame.

Agri-Expo is the oldest agricultural society in Africa. How has the organisation evolved over the years in what it wants to achieve in South Africa’s agri industry?

The Cape of Good Hope Agricultural Society was established in 1831 and Agri-Expo, our marketing name, in 1996. Therefore, this year we as an organisation celebrate both 190 years of heritage and 25 years of innovation.

The society was established originally by a group of farmers to compare the standards of their products and animals against each other, to award prizes and for social interaction.

Through the years, the organisation presented shows at the Parade in Cape Town (1833 – 1843), The Paddocks (1844 – 1893), Rosebank (1894 – 1952), Goodwood (1953 – 1995) and Sandringham (1996 – 2019). All along, the purpose of these shows was to improve the quality of products and to promote the image of agriculture.

The first prize for wine was awarded on 22 June 1833, considered the forerunner of all wine shows in South Africa, and today Agri-Expo still is the owner and custodian of the annual Young Wine Show, presented in collaboration with the South African National Wine Show Association (SANWSA).

The first competition for dairy products was held in 1834, and today Agri-Expo still hosts the South African Dairy Championships – now the largest, oldest and most prestigious dairy championships in Africa.

CEO of Agri-Expo, Johan Ehlers

Throughout the years, the society not only presented shows, but continually attempted to bring about progress, such as petitions to government to establish organised agricultural structures in South Africa. It resulted in the establishment of the first department of agriculture in the Cape in 1886 and an Agricultural College in 1888, which was the beginning of the Elsenburg Agricultural College.

Today the Western Cape prides itself on three exceptional agricultural schools, with whom Agri-Expo has good relationships, awarding bursaries annually to learners to enhance their affinity for agriculture. In 1903 the society started to record animals in a register, which lead to the foundation of the SA Studbook in 1905.

The society held the first yearling equestrian sales in 1928, an activity in which Agri-Expo is still involved with great pride. Already in the 1930s the society started coordinating agricultural show dates, something Agri-Expo also still does today.

Agri-Expo has thus over the past 190 years had an impact on many aspects of people’s lives. The model of a society that is not only connected to its own showground is considered as leading the way in the promotion of South African agriculture. Especially over the past 25 years, Agri-Expo has managed to stay at the forefront through innovation and creative thinking.

We created and recreated exciting opportunities in different agricultural industries so that people look at agriculture with new eyes. The global Covid-19 pandemic has also hit South Africa hard and during the past year, there have been many challenges. True to the Agri-Expo tradition, the society did not shy away from these challenges and the Agri-Expo team came up with several new initiatives to use their expertise to turn challenges into opportunities.

What success stories/developments are you most proud of?

We are fortunate to be able to share many success stories. One that really stands out is the achievement to look back and see how an idea – the SA Cheese Festival in 2002 – grew to become the biggest outdoor culinary event in Africa, over two decades until 2019.

Another highlight was establishing the Qualité mark of excellence in the dairy industry, and later realising that it is not only a mark to identify products of exceptional quality, but also a mark that gives recognition and incentives to the whole team of people who work together on producing a product.

And ultimately, I am very proud of how the Agri-Expo team embraces challenges and then creates new opportunities with innovative ideas. A recent example is the transformation of our information days for new and small farmers into hybrid SIYABONGA days.

CEO of Agri-Expo, Johan Ehlers

Also, Agri-Expo was the only organisation in the world that could host a dairy championships continuously in 2020 and 2021 during the pandemic. Next, in a first for South Africa and Africa, we take agriculture to the classroom with Farmer Time South Africa, as part of the international Farmer Time project.

Another recent development is establishing our own goal posts during the pandemic by redesigning the SA Cheese Festival experience into a series of four SA Cheese Festival pop-up picnics, still offering an exceptional experience but with a smaller group of people attending each event.

What has been some of your personal highlights with Agri-Expo?

Each year brings its own highlights and remarkable moments. One such moment was when I stood in anticipation at the gates on the morning of our very first SA Cheese Festival in 2002, not knowing if anyone will attend, and then …. That feeling when the public started flocking onto the grounds and at lunch time we had to say, ‘Sold Out’!. It is a humble feeling of thankfulness when you realise that you have created a platform for small farmers, producers and entrepreneurs that will forever change their lives.

Another special memory was when we “took agriculture to town” with the first From the Earth Expo in the Cape Town International Convention Centre (CTICC) in 2006, and I saw the emotion on a dad’s face when his three-year-old son touched a calf and I realised this was a first for both of them.

However, highlights for me are not limited to events only. Seeing people develop in different fields will always remain an ongoing highlight. Also, when you realise that a project succeeded in its goal of bringing someone closer to agriculture and you know that a love for agriculture has forever been established here.

The agricultural show industry has been through a difficult period. What’s your vision for 2022?

Covid-19 resulted in several challenges in the live events and agricultural championships. Regulations restricted these events from taking place and influencing thousands of role players in the industry, resulting in several business closing down and jobs being lost. Needless to say, the financial impact was immense, and its effect continues to be felt across the agricultural industry in South Africa. As an agricultural events industry, we will not survive if we continue as we have for the last two years.

We fully anticipate that exhibitions, conferences, concerts, restaurants, universities, bars and taverns, workplaces, gyms and other publicly accessible economic activities, will be required to implement vaccine mandates (i.e. restrict access to vaccinated people only). And enhanced health and safety protocols in order to operate at a financially sustainable capacity while mitigating the risk of the virus transmission, hospitalisations and death.

Every major country around the world has followed this route to encourage vaccination and reopen their societies, and the reality is that South Africa has no fiscal space left to close down industries. The only tool left available to us is to substantially increase our vaccination rate – which this policy decision has proven to do around the world.

Any exciting future plans that agricultural showgoers can look forward to?

As mentioned, the good news is that cheese and wine lovers can look forward to a new series of SA Cheese Festival pop-up picnics over four weekends in April 2022. We present the pop-up picnics together with select partners at four of the Cape’s most popular destinations – from the Winelands to Walker Bay to the West Coast and back to the Winelands.

The first pop-up picnic takes place on Saturday 2 and Sunday 3 April 2022 at Warwick Wine Estate outside Stellenbosch, the second on Saturday 9 and Sunday 10 April 2022 at Benguela Cove Wine Estate outside Hermanus, the third on Saturday 23 and Sunday 24 April 2022 at Groote Post Wine Estate outside Darling, and the fourth and final on Saturday 30 April and Sunday 1 May 2022 at Sandringham outside Stellenbosch. Ticket sales will open during December – keep an eye on www.cheesepicnics.co.za and follow the SA Cheese Festival on social media to find out more.

There is great excitement about the 2022 show calendar. We are fortunate that in the Western Cape there still is a vibrant show culture and annual shows of world quality are offered throughout the year. Despite pandemic challenges, all Agri-Expo’s members shows are more than ready to host their annual shows in 2022.

The Agri-Expo Agri Shows Route (www.agriexpo.co.za/agrishowsroute) showcases our 17 agricultural member shows that take place from February to October 2022. These shows offer a wonderful opportunity to support local economies and experience rural hospitality.  

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