What is ‘The Show’, the mystery event that life in Christchurch seems to revolve around? Alex Casey heads along to find out.
Ever since I moved to Christchurch I’ve been hearing murmurs about a mysterious occurrence called The Show. Whether it was the advice to not plant out cucumbers before show day (which I ignored, RIP), or people fondly reminiscing about school outings to The Show, or the fact that the entire city suddenly became covered in banners exclaiming that Christchurch is On Show, I was left with a lot of questions about the enigmatic phrase.
“The New Zealand Agricultural Show is literally the country coming to town,” explained Tracy Ahern, general manager of the Canterbury A&P Association. “We are unique to any other city in the country, in that our entire city stops for show week.” Operating since 1862, give or take a few Covid years, The Show is the longest-running agricultural show in the South Island, unique in offering over 4,000 different animal competitions. “People are proud of their animals,” said Ahern. “They want to showcase their animals, and they want the city to see their animals.”
After perusing the complete three-day timetable packed with barn dancing, motocross, milking, Christmas cake judging, duck herding, gumboot throwing, dressage, something called “Let There Be Meat” and even an appearance from Suzy Cato, I stumbled bleary-eyed through the gates of The Show on Wednesday morning and immediately nearly got hit by a tractor. As the vintage machinery huffed, puffed and spat at me, I began an orbit of the park to try to get my bearings before delving into the animal judging mecca that is the livestock pavilion.
For over an hour, I sampled The Show tasting menu (not literally, I wouldn’t find the food until at least 1pm). I stroked a woollen coffin before watching Tess (a dog) perform a “calm and flawless” example of sheep herding. I cheered on Tony from Hokitika, going hell for leather in the wood chopping. I had my hands moisturised after a woman yelled “dry hands????” at me from afar. I enjoyed the positioning of Toys4U next to a chainsaw-sharpening stall. “We’ve got something to keep everyone entertained,” chuckled the vendor. “Something for the little boys and something for the big boys.”
I finally found the livestock pavilion after asking upwards of five people where it was (even the representative from Lincoln University didn’t know, and that’s tertiary level!). Inside, I was met with a cacophony of hilarious Wilhelm scream bleats. Scared primary school children looked around wide-eyed. “It’s a goat, it’s just a goat,” a teacher soothed. “Sounds like someone is dying” muttered a parent. The hellmouth soundscape was not helped by the poultry cages, emblazoned with an endless stream of 666.
Thankfully, I arrived just in time to watch the Valais Blacknose judging (often referred to as “the cutest sheep in the world”). Number 772 was scream-baahing with her tongue out, revealing a surprising purple hue. 766 had the wobbles and was also scream-baahing. 771 had a more balletic gait, releasing only a gentle scream-baah at the ground. The judge assessed each one and then revealed 771 to be the winner. She let out a loud, proud, one-word acceptance speech: “mmmlaaaaah”.
Afterwards I chatted to Christine from Morrinsville, a competitor and a member of the New Zealand Valais Blacknose Breeders Society, who told me the science fiction story of how these Swiss cuties made it here. New Zealand isn’t allowed to import live sheep, so Blacknose embryos frozen in liquid nitrogen were brought in and implanted into local ewes, a little bit like a Kardashian surrogate. They have only been on here for a few years, and this is the first time the Blacknose has been judged in The Show.
What was the judge looking for? Conformation (“straight back, not pigeon-toed or knock-kneed”), good markings and good wool. And… why does it matter when they are all just as imperceptibly cute as each other? “It’s confirmation that you’re on the right track with breeding and that you are getting as close to the breed standard as possible,” Christine said. “It also means that if you are selling stock or semen, you can say that it’s been judged to be the best.”
Although she performed “kind of average” in the competition, Christine was still happy to be at The Show. “It’s all about catching up with other farmers, because we only really get to see each other once a year, and to meet a lot of new people that have got the same interests,” she said. On the back of her business card was a photo of the Valais Blacknose that went viral on Facebook a few years ago. “I took that.” she said as I cooed. “They are very cute, but taste very good too. Better than normal lamb.”
Christine told me to check out the cattle next, but as I wandered past the “Sheep Office” (two people inside furiously counting what I can only assume were sheep), some resplendent red goats turned my head. Their breeder, Philippa, joined them in the pen, armed with a bucket of warm water and a bottle of Tresemmé Smooth and Silky. “Of course she decided to get the shits on the first day of The Show,” she scoffed, lathering up the soiled rump of one of her guiltier-looking doe.
“It’s a messy job, but somebody’s got to do it.”
As she scrubbed, she told me that they had brought 30-odd Boer goats from their farm in Amberley to stay at the show for the full three days. “The whole show is about benchmarking your breed,” she said. “It’s all good and well saying ‘mine are better than yours’, but until you get all of the breeders and their stock in the same room, you just don’t know.” Philippa already had two junior champions after the traditional Boer category this morning, and her reds were up after lunch – hence the hasty bum wash.
Just like the Valais Blacknose, the judges look at conformation, but Philippa said the rest of the criteria can vary depending on personal preference. “The judge today is apparently looking a lot at masculinity and femininity,” she explained. What makes a feminine goat? “They want to see a longer and more slender neck. They’ll also be looking for a good udder, not one hanging around your knees.” As she prepared to rinse and repeat, I asked where I should go next. “The farmyard is always good,” she said.
I walked out of the Wool Zone and straight into the background of a What Now shot. Directly opposite was an enormous National stand, heaving with punters and kids doing colouring in. The nearby Act stand was less busy, so I sidled up to former MP Toni Severin to see how her Show was going. “It’s fantastic, a lot of people are coming up and congratulating us and letting us know that they are looking forward to this coalition negotiation being done and dusted,” she said. Any coalition talk scoops? “No insider info here,” she laughed. “I’m just waiting like everyone else.”
Act had about the fifth cornhole set I had seen so far, so I asked why the backyard game from the 1800s was having such a moment at The Show. “It’s all about sustainability now, so lollipops and balloons are no longer allowed,” she explained, as we stared at the untouched corn hole. “We have had to find other ways to engage our youth.” One freebie they did have on offer was an Act-branded gun safety chamber flag. “It makes it easy for hunters to show people that their firearms are empty,” said Severin, not offering me one. “It’s promotion but it’s also education.”
Severin herself has been an exhibitor at the show in another life, well before Act-branded gun merch. In the mid 2000s, she sold Italian charm bracelets with her small jewellery business – Unique Linx – and said it was an invaluable way to get her product in front of a wide range of people. “Not just your farmers, but you’ve got your town folk and then you’ve got your other small business owners.” She exhibited with Unique Linx for five years before “times changed and fashion moved on”. Today, she’s more than happy to be back at The Show supporting Act.
I admitted I was getting my arse kicked by The Show. “In all the times that I have come here, I have never seen a full show,” she said. “I normally only get around one third of it, if that.” With that daunting fraction now looming in my head, I tried to make my way to the farmyard, but got waylaid again by the nearby cattle judging results. Judge Barry McDonald was speaking to the crowd, backed by a lineup of beautiful buff bovine, about his methodology.“My philosophy is that I look at these animals and I say to myself: ‘do they best represent their breed?’”
He awarded first place to an enormous South Devon bull, who celebrated his win by standing and doing absolutely nothing. “This bull really stood out for me as soon as he came in the ring,” McDonald continued. “I saw him judged earlier this morning and, even at that stage, he caught my eye.” The South Devon’s winning attributes included having a “massive head”, “lovely kind eye” and “a great set of testicles” to boot. “He’s carrying an amazing amount of flesh for a two-year-old,” McDonald added, “there’s really nothing wrong with this bull.”
I too felt like a two-year-old carrying an amazing amount of flesh as I continued to drag my heels to the farmyard on Philippa’s instruction. Despite being swindled at the door after striding with strong conformation towards a coop full of soft toy chickens and plastic eggs meant for toddlers, the farmyard was perfect. Bright pink piglets, proper Babe stuff, all asleep in a line, woke up only to snuffle into the hay. A little lamb gang boasted cool coloured bandannas. Guinea pigs hung out in a pink and purple Love Island-style villa. There was also a big scary box of bees.
After finding the free food – hot Milo from Nestle, fried rice (?) also from Nestle, controversial soft serve possibly putting every other ice cream stall out of business – I sat on a hay bale listening to a young woman sing an acoustic cover of Macy Gray’s ‘I Try’ in the entertainment area. The nearby McDonald’s stall was still absolutely heaving, the line for custom “Christchurch: I’m Lovin’ It” T-shirts snaking out onto the grass. I heard a mum ask another mum where she got her son’s blow-up alien ($10, next to the octopus ride).
I was knackered, and had missed so much, but there was one more thing I had to do. Earlier in the day, not unlike the testicles of a South Devon Bull, something had caught my eye – an enormous black truck with “GOOSEROOTER” emblazoned across the windscreen in hot pink font. I quickly found Robbie “Gooserooter” Shefford tinkering nearby with his tractor. “It’s a nickname I was given years ago” he laughed, stroking his sideburns, “no small farm animals involved.”
What was jarring about Gooserooter HQ, aside from the obvious, was that his stall was also plastered with gentle “IT’S OK TO NOT BE OK” mental health messaging. A former truck driver and firefighter, Shefford told me that his own experiences inspired him to reach out to people on a grassroots level. “Quite a few years I had a breakdown, and ended up in the loony bin,” he said plainly. He started making videos about his struggles, and realised just how many people out there needed help.
“There’s a lot of lonely jobs out there,” he explained. “If you’re sitting in the tractor or the truck all day by yourself, in the morning your problems might have been the size of a teaspoon but, by the end of the day, those same problems are the size of a bucket.” Noting that truckers in particular get “bugger all” support, he started out by parking his caravan filled with tea and coffee on the side of the road in Rangitata, and had 75 people stop by for a chat in his first week.
Since then he’s been to more than 35 different events around the South Island, using his truck and tractor as a honeytrap to lure in farmers, truckies and anyone else who might need a yarn. “Some people look at the truck and think ‘shit that’s cool’ and then they look at the tractor and think ‘wow that’s awesome’, and then they see all the stuff about mental health and they are off like a dog shot,” he said. “You see all the ignorance around it, which is one of the reasons I want to get out there and do it more.”
Shefford, who is from Geraldine, is particularly passionate about reaching rural spots, which are currently starved of attention. “Musicians, comedians, all these performers that talk about life? They only ever go to the main centres, but all the wee towns get totally forgotten,” he said. “In the main centres there are also so many more resources for mental health support. Out in the sticks there’s just nothing.” He gestured to his custom range of mugs and bucket hats.
“That’s not going to make me a millionaire, but it keeps the fuel tank full so I can get to the next event,” he said. “And that next event might just be the difference between someone holding on to hope and someone letting go.”
A few people had grumbled throughout the day about The Show not being the way it used to, be it due to the growth of the retail area or because the bar is not a corrugated shed any more. This first-timer has no comment on that but, in talking to Shefford, I was again stunned by the depths of experience contained within this strange, sprawling event. In a few hours I’d traversed everything from frozen sheep embryos to wool coffins, the demise of Italian charm bracelets to the unspoken pain of rural life.
Shefford was up out of his seat again to tinker with something else on his tractor. As well as providing a spot for people to yarn, he’s got an important role to play in the daily parade. “I used to do a loop around the main arena and we’d have the police tractor chasing me around,” he said. “It’s good because my tractor goes way faster than the police tractor.” Sadly, along with the duck herding and sheep milking, Gooserooter getting chased by a cop was just another thing I missed at The Show.
“That’s OK,” he grinned. “You’ll just have to come back again next time.”