The Eikon Centre was a hive of activity today as the 151st annual Balmoral Show got off to a roaring start.
Around 30,000 visitors a day are expected at the old Maze site which is now very much home to the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society’s centrepiece.
It is easy to lose one’s bearing in the vast 65-acre site, where the smells of the countryside mingle with the aroma of some of the best local produce on sale from the many food outlets.
The News Letter spoke with former Ireland rugby international Simon Best in the food pavilion, where more than 90 food and drink companies are showcasing the best of local produce.
He said: “I’m here first and foremost as a farmer. We’ve also got some Aberdeen Angus on show as well. We got a third with a yearling bull.
“Our farm is in Poyntzpass. Rory (Simon’s brother and Irish rugby captain) would help out a bit, he’s always had a very active interest. He’ll maybe have a bit more time after he retires to put into it.
“We supply White’s Oats which are five miles from us. It’s great when you can see your product on the supermarket shelves.
“I’m also spending the afternoon on the Nature Friendly Farming Network stand, promoting the work that we do with the environment and sustainability.”
He added: “Balmoral Show is important for the whole community. It gives farmers in the rural communities the opportunity to show what we do and why we do things. It’s great there are so many non-farmers here and people who are not from rural communities coming here. It’s important to promote where our food comes from and why there are tractors on the roads.
“It’s a great showcase for all the good that local agriculture does for the Northern Ireland economy.”
The 41-year-old, who appeared more than 100 times for Ulster and was capped 23 times by Ireland, explained how the Best family were farmers long before they were rugby players: “We’re on our current farm from 1921.
“Before that the family were based about 10 miles away. There’s still parts of the family in that area.
“We’ve traced it to the late 1600s in the Newry area.
“Farming came first, rugby was a career opportunity for myself for a few years, longer for Rory.
“I always saw rugby as a hobby. I’m still very much involved as a coach at Banbridge and on committees there and at Ulster. Once you’re involved you never really get out. I don’t miss the aches and pains.”
David Rutley, food minister with the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, was full praise for local producers: “The Balmoral Show is a wonderful showcase for Northern Ireland’s high-quality livestock, food and drink and farm produce and all the exhibitors here should be rightly proud of their achievements.
“Year after year, visitors flock to the show to experience the very best that Northern Irish farmers and producers have to offer, and it’s no surprise that their products play such an important part in the UK’s food and drink export success story.”
Everyone licked after long day
Large crowds enjoyed the sun’s rays in the exhibition areas as owners crossed their fingers that their animals would do them proud.
In the cattle shed the News Letter came across Gareth Elliott and his girlfriend Katie Millar chilling out with Olivia, who picked up third prize in the limousin heifer class this morning.
Gareth of Milford Limousins in Enniskillen said: “We’ve picked up a few prizes at Balmoral over the years, but this is Olivia’s first prize here.
“She’s only 15 months old, this is only her second show. She was at Swatra at Christmas at the calf show and she came second in her class. It’s a good start for her.
“She’s an oul lick. She stands in the shed and she’ll plaster you.”
Gareth added: “My father and grandfather were farmers and several before that.
“I’ve a herd of about 40 but I try to breed pedigree off the top seven or eight.”
Of Balmoral Show he said: “It’s the highlight of the year, it’s great craic. We stayed over last night and were up really early to get ready.
“Olivia is tired now, we’re all really tired. That’s why you’ve caught us lying down.”
Billy Davidson from Co Durham was at Balmoral Show for the first time to take part in a showjumping event.
The 42-year-old said: “We’ve known about Balmoral Show for a long time. We’d have a few in our part of the world – The Great Yorkshire Show, Bramham.
“Our friends have been coming over so we thought we’d give it a go ourselves.
He added: “I’ve been showjumping for about 30 years. There’s a team of us have come over together from northern England to compete.
“It’s a beautiful show you have here at Balmoral.”
Classic TE20 Ferguson tractor going under hammer
A classic TE20 Ferguson which will go up for auction next week garnered a lot of attention from farmers of a certain vintage at Balmoral Show today.
The tractor, which has been restored to pristine condition, will be auctioned by Wilsons Auctions in Portadown on May 22.
Marketing executive Tori Dixon explained: “We would have a few tractors that go up for auction.
“This tractor is part of a collection that has come in from a private vendor who has restored it over the past two years.”
She added: “When you turn the key it works, it’s completely up to the purchaser whether they want to use it. Alternatively it could be just displayed.”
Plant, machinery and commercial manager with Wilsons Auctions, Richard McFetridge, said: “You could still use it on a farm for cultivation work, ploughing, etc, but obviously as you can see from walking around the show, tractors are monsters now.
“You could still put a small link box on it and tow a wee trailer. It could do all the things a bigger tractor could do but on a smaller scale.
“More likely whoever buys it will just buy it to park it up.”
Another vehicle up for auction as part of the same collection is a 1962 Land Rover Series 2 which has been restored to its original glory and fitted with a Fairey Overdrive unit.
It is also on display at the Wilsons Auctions stand at Balmoral Show.