Rachel Sullivan surveys the state's best farming fairs.
As we make our way slowly through knee-high grass and ditches dotting the car park, we're watching where we put our feet. Until yesterday afternoon this was a paddock full of cows and they've left reminders of their presence everywhere. I follow my city-born husband; it's virtually guaranteed that if there's a cowpat within range, he'll step in it with both feet.
I've brought the family to the Tocal Field Day, near Maitland in the Hunter Valley. I've loved agricultural shows of all kinds since accidentally finding myself at age 10 in the grand parade of the Newcastle Show with the show girl, mayor and other dignitaries who were too kind to say anything to the funny-looking kid who just wanted a ride on the draught-horse carriage.
Tocal isn't a showbags-and-rides kind of show; it's for the serious agricultural enthusiast. We're keen to buy a little place in the country and so we've come to find out what we don't know about being hobby farmers. The answer to that quickly becomes obvious – practically everything.
We wander through the State Forests and Department of Primary Industries marquees and past a nursery selling plants with strangely elongated root systems (for planting next to boggy creeks, apparently) and get to the heart of the field day: the machinery display.
The rest of the family, who had been looking a bit glum, perk up immediately. Two shiny, green tractors sit side by side, one larger than the other. Further inquiry reveals the one I've added to my mental shopping list is what's known as a "lifestyle tractor", designed to live in a nice, clean garage and to make tree-changers look good on the land. The other one is expected to get dirty and produce income. When I ask about the difference, the answer boils down to air-conditioning and about $100,000.
The children have somehow managed to engage the gears of an implement that bristles with a row of curved blades, so we drag them away and head for something a bit tamer – the animal displays.
We meet alpacas near funny, short-haired sheep with long tails; weary-looking cows whose enclosure bears a sign saying "Beefy little milkers", which troubles my vegetarian soul; friendly donkeys; pint-sized horses; and racing piglets. We milk a goat and drink the still-warm milk. It's a little like liquid feta but it's hard to enjoy while the goat – an Anglo Nubian – keeps staring at us from its strange, horizontal pupils.
At lunchtime we graze at a smorgasbord of local produce: 10 types of olives, incendiary Indian dishes, nuts of every conceivable variety, ubiquitous steak sandwiches, Hunter Valley wine and honey drained from a see-through hive full of buzzing bees.
In the afternoon we watch fencing displays, chat about grass that grows indoors and inspect fast-erecting stables and non-slip concrete for cow runs. We get advice from the Rural Fire Service about bushfire-proofing our as-yet-imaginary farmhouse, collect a mountain of literature on grants and other help available to farmers with environmental leanings and examine the contents of a flood emergency kit.
The children peer at fossils and stare into a live display of Port Jackson sharks, lobsters, Balmain bugs and sea urchins that were caught that morning in Port Stephens. Tiring of the endless chat, they head off to ride camels and bounce on jumping castles and bungee trampolines.
My husband is busy scraping camel dung off his shoes and looks as if he might be wearying of the fun, too, so we pick up a little more pavilion produce and head home, some of us inspired by what we had seen, others just keen to change their shoes.
There are hundreds of agricultural shows, field days and farm displays around NSW each year and all promise a great day out and novel experiences. The shows have distinctive characters and attractions. The most popular include:
Home of the neglected sport of wife-carrying, the Singleton Show in the Hunter Valley features a scarecrow competition, a dog high-jump contest and a show girl competition. An animal nursery, puppet show and rides will keep the children happy. See singletonshow.com.
As befits a community living near abundant forest, the Bulahdelah Show has numerous woodchopping and chainsawing events, as well as campdrafting, a uniquely Australian pastime in which a horse and rider work together to "cut out" a steer or heifer from a group of penned cattle then draft (work) the animal around a figure-of-eight course.
February 20-21, 2010
An old-fashioned country show near Inverell, the Ashford Show is famous for its games, including the hay-bale rolling competition, in which teams of four men or six women roll a large bale across a course. There's also a caterpillar race, ride-on lawnmower race, a mini-bike gymkhana, a pillow fight and a weight-guessing contest where an entire family (of humans) is placed in a corral and entrants pay a dollar to guess their combined weight.
February 19-21, 2010
Visitors to the Bega Show are treated to a display of medieval skill at arms and the knightly sport of jousting, with period clothing and equipment and horses wearing full mail and plate harnesses. Among the show's more contemporary entertainment are produce and horticultural displays, motorbike campdrafting, an epic tug of war, wheelie-bin races and a hay-stacking competition, which is much tougher than it sounds. See thebegavalley.org.au/begashow.html.
Armidale and New England Show
March 5-6, 2010
One of NSW's biggest shows, the Armidale and New England Show features a men's pikelet bake-off as well as the usual mix of rides, cattle-judging competitions, an extensive program of horse events, woodchopping competitions, sideshow alley and evening fireworks. This year's show featured Australia's living history, bringing to life the region's heritage and early history with working displays of old tools and crafts. See armidaleshow.com.au.
March 13, 2010
Alongside equestrian events, pavilion displays, animal exhibits and working dogs, the Cooma Show brought something different to the line-up of agricultural show entertainment this year, with pro wrestling and gold panning. Next year's events are still under wraps. See coomashow.com.au.
April 23-25, 2010
A fine opportunity to watch big blokes do battle with cross-cut saws and learn the difference between dairy and boer goats, as well as enjoy whip-cracking, show-jumping and poultry-judging competitions. See narrabrishow.com.au.
Wee Waa Show
May 14-16, 2010
Among its more conventional country show attractions, such as the ute muster, baby show and twilight rodeo, the Wee Waa Show has an annual lawn-mowing race, where entrants secretly train under lights (that is, a torch) around the town in the months leading up to the event. See weewaa.com.
Tocal Field Days
April 30-May 2, 2010
More properly known as a machinery field day, Tocal Field Days are held at the Tocal Agricultural College and while they have entertainment and great pavilion displays, these events focus on the practical side of farming and include masterclasses on constructing fences and handling cattle on foot, on horseback and with dogs. See tocal.com.