First published by Megan Hughes on ABC

They are a highlight of any rural events calendar, but as the high cost-of-living continues to bite, communities are innovating to ensure their agricultural shows go on.

As Prime Minister Anthony Albanese recalled government MPs to Canberra to discuss the growing pressure on household budgets, volunteer show committees across the country were adapting to halt declining exhibitor and attendee numbers.

Embracing quirky competitions like a bachelors’ bake off or dachshund racing, they are embracing new ideas to make the annual gatherings as resilient as the towns they represent.

For exhibitors like Karen and Hannah Coghill, it means more people get the chance to share their passion, and perhaps discover one of their own.

Goating on the road

When Karen Coghill’s husband suggested they get a nanny goat to help feed their pet lambs, she was against it but relented in the end.

“They’re very affectionate, very smart,” Ms Coghill said.

“They’re very well behaved, they love routine, they just love being around you.

“They’re just an all-round great pet.”

Ten years later she has amassed dozens to breed and show, alongside her daughter Hannah who specialises in the Nigerian dwarf breed.

“It was hard to pick a breed to start with because I wanted something that mum didn’t have,” Hannah said.

The pair exhibit at various agricultural shows across Queensland, where they have received several awards for the quality of their animals.

But it is not a cheap hobby, and in the past year Karen said the number of exhibitors on the circuit had dropped significantly.

“With the rising costs of travel, preparing, feeding, it is making it a little bit harder to get the exhibits at shows,” she said.

Where previously Ms Coghill would take up to 21 goats on the road, she now had to be selective about what events to attend.

“If there’s not going to be many other animals (to compete with) … it’s not really worth our time and money to travel,” she said.

Shows adapting and innovating

Ms Coghill’s experience reflects the tough decisions being made at shows across the country.

Agricultural Shows Australia executive officer Katie Stanley said several state organisations were worried about falling exhibitor numbers.

“Everybody is looking at every dollar that they have,” she said.

“Exhibitors are making a choice whether they do or don’t go to the next show.

“But they’re making choices on whether they turn the air conditioning on or off as well in their house.”

She said some events had been running for more than 200 years and would weather this storm, as they had others.

“They are incredibly resilient, and they will adapt and innovate,” Ms Stanley said.

Ring announcer Lyndsey Douglas is among those using her experience on the circuit to share ideas.

“[Changes] that allow people that weren’t otherwise coming to be involved and make great memories is how shows keep existing,” she said.

To inspire others, she wrote a booklet featuring the various strategies she saw in action as she travelled the country.

This includes the show committee in Alpha, central Queensland, which invited the town’s bachelors to compete in the cooking section by baking the same chocolate cake recipe.

“Some of the cakes had thoroughly imploded in the middle … some looked quite good,” Ms Douglas said.

“But they were a really popular part of the competition to see who would cook the best and the worst chocolate cake from all the blokes in the district.”

Whether it was a mullet competition in Beaufort or a dachshund dash in Holbrook, Ms Douglas said the secret to success was community representation.

“The whole point of an agricultural show is to reflect the community of the day,” she said.

Showing support

Agricultural shows were originally created to showcase new innovations and improve productivity in the industry.

They have since evolved to be an important part of the social fabric of thriving communities, one that bridges the city-country divide and provides an economic boost to regions.

Without the support of rural exhibitors, Ms Stanley said the events would be very different.

“An exhibitor is vital … not only for the financial benefit of the agricultural show, but the learnings behind agriculture,” she said.

She said many young people got their first taste of a career in agriculture showing livestock.

“We’re teaching these kids why we pick out different traits for these different animals,” Ms Stanley said.

“You’ve got that element of learning through competition and then there is a direct line to that industry.”

But whether somebody supported a local show as an attendee or an exhibitor, Hannah Coghill said there was more than ribbons and accolades on offer.