Reading aloud is not a new experience for Sharon Booth. It’s something that has been required of her as a teacher’s assistant for 10 years and as a published author of four children’s books. Reading without an audience, however, has been a new experience. “I'm not used to working behind a camera. I wasn’t quite sure where to look,” she said.
If this were a normal year, Booth would have been at Agfest Field Days, one of Tasmania’s largest events, in early May, mingling with vast crowds and fellow exhibitors. Instead, we are talking by phone about a very different Agfest experience. “It's so important as an author to talk to people and get feedback,” she said. “Like other retailers and businesses at Agfest, I think we really enjoy talking to our customers and having a good chat. That way we know we’re on the right track.”
How do you do that, however, when the event has been cancelled by a global pandemic?
Agfest 2020, like so much else on Planet Earth in the first half of this year, didn’t happen. It was a blow to Tasmania, economically and socially. What should have been a celebration of the event’s 37th birthday, and a repeat or better of the bumper 2019 event, became instead another covid cancellation.
And then, as again happened around the world, people got creative. Sharon Booth joined a number of Agfest exhibitors by stepping in front of a camera for the first time, filming a reading of her book Dunstan and Theodore Hide and Seek to an audience of covid-quarantiners in Tasmania and beyond.
To state the obvious, 2020 has been far from a normal year. Some of the state’s largest events – Dark MOFO, The Unconformity, Australian Musical Theatre Festival – have joined a long list of global events previously thought unstoppable. On March 18, 2020, Agfest chairman Ethan Williams had the unenviable task of announcing Agfest’s cancellation. It was a difficult decision. “In light of the situation, we’ve definitely made the right call, but we took a few days to consider it,” he said (again, via a socially distant phone call). “We had so many stakeholders to consult with, and over 700 exhibitors, plus supplies, contractors and the lot, so it’s not as easy as just pulling the pin.”
For Williams, pulling the pin meant stepping in front of a rolling snowball: Agfest 2019 attracted 63,838 patrons and 728 exhibitors, and reaped $26 million for the Tasmanian economy. For 2020, that number was projected to be well over $30 million.
Such numbers were once unimaginable, considering the humble beginnings of the event and the organisation behind it. The Rural Youth Organisation of Tasmania Inc, which organises Agfest, began life on July 5, 1950, as the Junior Farmers' Clubs of Tasmania, and was first administered by an officer from the Department of Agriculture. It was allocated $14,000 for the year and a part-time secretary.
In 1983, after years of growth and more than a few tweaks to its title, the organisation, now formally known as Rural Youth, formed a committee of 30 to create and oversee an agricultural field days event. The first Agfest was held in May that year at Symmons Plains, Perth. It attracted 111 exhibitors and 9,000 patrons over two days.
The Agfest committee is composed solely of volunteers, most of whom are aged between 20 and 30. Inherent in Rural Youth’s name and ethos is a deep-seated tradition of empowering the young people of today with hard-skills and real opportunities. Members of Rural Youth are offered a seat at the table and a unique role in organising one of Australia’s largest and most successful agricultural festivals.
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It is not easy for people Ethan Williams’ age, at the beginning of their working life and facing modern economic pressures, to be so generous with their free time. But before assuming role as chairman, Williams had been volunteering with Rural Youth since 2011. And he refuses to accept the role of civic hero. “You’ll go up there on the Saturdays and Sundays to work,” he said, “but then you’ll also have a few beers that Saturday night with your mates who've come from all across the state to be there.
“You can go anywhere here in Tassie and you’ll run into someone who was in Rural Youth or still is, and if you need a bed to crash at there’s always someone you know. It’s one of the best things I’ve done in Rural Youth … the mates that have come out of it.”
Sometimes the relationships are closer than friendship. Ethan’s twin brother, Jake, is Rural Youth state president. Among the 1983 inaugural event organisers, and 1991 Agfest chairman, was Chris Williams, the twins’ second cousin.
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Forty South Publishing had its own hat in the ring in Agfest 2020. Having signed up as an exhibitor, the Forty South team was to set up a stall and show off two of our authors, Fiona Stocker and Sharon Booth (published under Sharon J. Yaxley). News of the event’s cancellation was disappointing yet understandable during those unpredictable early days of coronavirus.
Four weeks later, Agfest rose from the ashes. In collaboration with the Tasmanian government, the event jumped “from the paddock to the cloud”. Stocker, a frequent contributor to this magazine and a successful author, was excited. “We’re still managing to bring Tasmania to the world, even though Agfest [in its physical form] has shut down. We’re still managing to get Tasmania out there,” she said.
Could Agfest in the Cloud have been envisaged, let alone been brought about, without the youth, and implied tech-acuity, of the organisers? Ethan Williams, faced with the question, hesitated.
“Yes and no,” he said. “We’re always coming up with new ideas, and some fail sometimes, but it’s all about learning. I guess anyone can think to go online, but being youthful it does help sometimes with technology. Field days from the mainland have already given us a call to ask us how we’ve done it, and how they can do a similar thing. So, we’ve definitely led the way.”