Andrew Thomas talks to Christine Knipe, Chief Executive of the Westmorland County Agricultural Society, about hard work, the role of traditional rural shows and the challenges facing farming

Westmorland County Show is an intrinsic part of the fabric of local life.  Held annually on the second Thursday of September, the show attracts more than 30,000 visitors who enjoy the livestock classes, one of the largest locally produced food halls in the North West, a spectacular Women’s Institute marquee, rural crafts and more than 400 trade stands.

Westmorland County Agricultural Society (WCAS), which organises the show, also runs Countryfest, a family weekend, featuring food and drink, countryside activities, cookery workshops and live music.

At the helm of the society is Christine Knipe, 60, who is rooted in local farming life.

“I am a farmer’s daughter, born and brought up on a mixed dairy, beef and sheep farm at Wood Broughton,” said Christine.

She regularly travelled the country with her Dad, showing sheep at rural shows.

She and her siblings were expected to work on the family farm. “In this day and age you would probably class our childhood as being feral,” she said. “You were expected to do jobs before and after school started and at the time you thought you were badly done to. But, looking back, we had the best childhood I could have imagined and one I wish we could have given to our own children.

“I followed the academic route. I did well at school but three weeks before I was due to go to Leeds University to study languages my Dad said ‘no’. A farmer’s daughter got a job in a bank and married a farmer, they did not go to university.

“It seemed really harsh but, growing up, if Dad said something that was what happened.”

Christine, a firm believer now that things happen for a reason, picked up The Westmorland Gazette and applied for the first job she saw with the word ‘trainee’ in front of it and was appointed as a trainee accountant at Lowe and Whitwell in Kendal.

“I vowed to myself I would learn as much as I could, whenever I could and I absolutely threw myself into the Young Farmers organisation, working my way through the ranks until I became district chairman.”

She also loved her accounting work, learning about VAT and payrolls and, as many clients were farmers, felt very much at home.

An early highlight was winning a Young Farmers’ scholarship to spend nine months travelling around the United States, staying with farming families and broadening her horizons.

Back in England, she worked as a management accountant in the motor trade for the former Atkinsons at Kendal and at Frank Peters Printers at Gatebeck, rising to be financial controller.

“I worked very hard and still do. I think that came from my parents. I also take every opportunity. You don’t turn things down because you don’t know if it’s going to come again.”

She had been on the management committee at the WCAS since 1994 and, in 2005, was appointed the first female chief executive since it began back in 1799.

It was a perfect fit for someone who has only missed one Westmorland County Show during her life. “I have been to the show as a babe-in-arms, as a child, as an exhibitor with sheep, as a trade exhibitor with Atkinsons, as a sponsor with Frank Peters and been involved in the background as a volunteer.”

During her tenure the show has grown in size by between 75 and 90 per cent. “I like to think I have helped strengthen the agricultural core of the business. I could see some other shows choosing a more commercial route but I wanted WCS to embrace more agricultural content.”

To this end, she increased the number of agricultural traders but also ‘tweaked the edges’ of the show by putting on something fresh each year, from a theatre to a Postman Pat extravaganza.

WCAS has a charitable remit to promote and enhance agriculture in the area and Christine has also developed its educational links.

These include farm open days, attracting 1,600 primary school children who are given an insight into the origins of food and the countryside. This is not ‘cuddly agriculture’, said Christine – children see sheep being sheared, a cow being milked, learn about slurry and there is a butchering station.

As the population grows more urbanised, Christine believes it is vital young people learn more about the countryside and farming to ensure both thrive and to protect food security.

Food to Fork roadshows have seen the society’s team take calves and hens into Barclays Bank at Kendal and other unexpected places so people can learn more about rural life.

The annual show is at the whim of the weather and facing increasing bureaucratic requirements, including more licencing and restrictions on animal movements. To boost the society’s resilience, hard-track roads have been laid, modern toilets installed and conference and meeting room facilities built for hire.

Though there are no plans to change the day of the week of the show or make it a two-day event, Christine says everything is reviewed each year.

Agricultural shows are vital, says Christine, whatever their size. “They are part of the rural fabric.”

Christine says major challenges facing farming include the trade deals achieved post-Brexit. “We produce food to some of the highest standards in the world and that should not be compromised by allowing cheaper products not produced to the same high standards.

“We also have to have a mechanism that rewards farmers for the work they do with the landscape and the contributions farmers make to carbon storage.”

Asked to describe herself, Christine, who lives with her husband on a farm near Tebay, answered: “Hard-working, an attention to detail, caring, passionate about the rural community and family orientated.”

And she remarked: “If I look back my Dad would be very pleased with what I do now.”