Kevin Attwood, chairman of the Kent County Agricultural Society (KCAS) which owns the showground, has defended his decision to call off the “gentleman’s agreement” with Ramsak over the running of the show, saying he is “very disappointed” at the outcome, but that both sides need to move on.

The 2019 show has been cancelled, but KCAS is filling the slot on 6 March with a Farm Expo. As revealed in the November issue of South East Farmer, Ramsak and Pitchfork are running a separate Agri-South show at East Malling Estate on 5 June next year. This was set up before the row over Agri-Expo and will be focusing on crops, rather than machinery.

Ramsak director Jonathan West is less willing to forgive and forget the split with KCAS, saying he is waiting for an apology from Mr Attwood and has been left “angry, to say the least”. He said his trust in the showground management had been “blown apart”.

Mr West says first signs of a difference of opinion between Pitchfork and KCAS over the future of Agri-Expo came immediately after the 2018 show, which coincided with bad weather. He explained: “The March 2018 show was held during the snow and did not attract the footfall we hoped for. We pencilled in an April ‘catch-up’ meeting with KCAS, to plan the date for the 2019 event and to start getting organised.

“KCAS came back and said Agri-Expo was ‘not doing it for them financially’ and in an email they said they had given us a discounted ground rent for the past seven years, which it calculated added up to a 50% stake in the show.

‘We disagreed and said we would contest this. We put the burden of proof on KCAS to show how it came to this conclusion, but nothing came back from the board. They said they were not willing to host the show unless it was commercially viable and that we would now be charged £32,000 ground rent – double what we had historically paid. We said this was unacceptable and for them to think again. They came back with the figure of £30,000.”

Mr West said he asked KCAS’s financial director Hugh Summerfield how the figure was arrived and was told it was based on the amount charged for other events at the showgound. “My retort was that our show was for the farming community and could not be considered like-for-like with such as Elton John or Little Mix,” said Mr West. “There must be an intrinsic value for farmers coming and using the showground.”

Mr West, a founder of Agri-Expo with the late Chris Smith, admitted there had never been any written agreement with KCAS over the structure of running the show and that it had been largely a “gentleman’s agreement”.

In September this year, Mr West met Mr Attwood and Mr Summerfield and told them that timing was now crucial to arrange the 2019 show. He said Ramsak agreed for one year only to pay a basic ground rent as a guarantee and “top it up with any financial outcome” from the event. Mr West says this was agreed verbally and that Mr Attwood said he would draw up a draft agreement to that effect. This took between three and four weeks to arrive.

Mr West and Mr Attwood met again in October to go through the draft agreement and Mr West said he told KCAS it had now come to the point at which Pitchfork needed to announce the details of the format of the 2019 show, in order to market it.

“I told Kevin I didn’t want to put our name to a ‘half-cocked event’ and suggested that as an alternative to a show we would consider putting on a farming conference instead, a) to mark the date and b) to lower our overheads. Kevin’s response was ‘we’re not into that. We don’t get involved with half-baked ideas’.”

Mr West said that on 3 November, Ramsak was made aware that Mr Attwood had sent out letters to the supporters of previous Agri-Expos, informing them of a split between Pitchfork and KCAS over the running of the show. A copy of this letter has been shown to South East Farmer.
After explaining that Agri-Expo had been staged at Kent Showground for seven years “as a joint venture collaboration between the Kent County Agricultural Society, which is a charity, and Ramsak/Pitchfork, a commercial enterprise”, the letter reveals that “it has become clear, in the last few days, that collaboration is a relationship that has run its course and the two organisations will go their separate ways”.

The rest of the letter reveals details of the KCAS Farm Expo to be run at the showground with “a full range of exhibitors covering agricultural machinery, plant, services and technology”. It says trade stand fees, both indoors and outside will be “very competitive” and asks the recipient to support the event.

Mr West says Ramsak never formally heard back from KCAS as to whether it would consider running a farming conference, or continue with a full show in March, and he claims the board received notification over the decision to pull out of the agreement only after the letter had gone out to Agri-Expo supporters.

South East Farmer asked Mr Attwood to react to Ramsak’s comments, but Mr Attwood would say only that he was “genuinely disappointed it had ended this way”, adding “life moves on. Time heals things”. He then asked us to print the following statement, which he says explains KCAS’s position.

“Agri Expo has been staged at the Kent Show Ground in a joint venture collaboration between the Kent County Agriculture Society, which is a charity, and Pitchfork Events, a commercial enterprise. Both parties have contributed to the success, with the respective staff teams both working hard to make the event happen.

“Beyond that staff input, which has been costed annually and is largely equal from each party, historically the society has also contributed the showground at no charge, effectively subsiding Agri-Expo and Pitchfork by the equivalent of the commercial event use of the showground.

“After Agri-Expo 2018 was held, as a charity we considered that a charge needed to be made for the showground and buildings. As it was an event which we helped run and fitted within our charitable objectives, it would be at a discount, but as we were in a joint venture collaboration with a commercial partner a first charge against any surplus after costs of approximately 50% of the commercial letting rate for the showground was deemed appropriate.

“Pitchfork were made aware of the situation and over months of meetings a deal was agreed and a draft legal agreement produced at the society’s expense on 26 October for a three-year collaboration to jointly run Agri-Expo in March 2019, 2020, and 2021.

“Both parties met on 29 October, 2018 at the showground, purportedly with the view to start promoting Agri-Expo 2019. At that meeting, Pitchfork representatives notified the society that they were not prepared to run a machinery and rural services event for March 2019. They were prepared to consider a conference-based event, but not the existing Agri-Expo format. A very disappointing outcome from the society’s perspective.

“As a result, the society took the view that if a farm machinery event was to occur in Kent in March 2019 then it would have to be run by the society at the showground in the allotted free week. Accordingly, the Kent County Agricultural Society will be running Farm Expo on 6 March, 2019. Any surplus generated will be used to further the society’s charitable objectives, which include running the Kent County Show, supporting the Young Farmers’ Clubs and school farms, Living Land for school children in years 3 to 4 and our Kent Scholars programme.”

Ramsak chairman Hugh Goldsworthy said: “Agri-Expo was initiated with the hope and expectation that it would help forge and bond strong working relationships within our industry. Modern agriculture desperately needs to shrug off the notion that farmers and groups cannot work together and I find it appalling that Agri-Expo, a great regional flagship for farming, has become a victim of that long-held thought and proof of many troubles that still lie in agriculture.

“I very much hope that in the future, farmers, businesses, associations and groups involved in the farming world come to our senses and realise that business plans, profits, bureaucracy, legal agreements, although important, are worthless if the uniquely rich farming fraternity does not actually work together and leave something tangible for future generations in the form of community and not just a profit centre.”