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41 years on – AgQuip’s early memories of the greatest show in earth

Can you recall (if you were around then) what 1973 was like? Just to remind you the Queen opened the Opera House, the voting age went down to 18, Gala Supreme won the Melbourne Cup and Helen Reddy topped the charts with Delta Dawn. In January 1973 wool hit $20 a kilo but by the end of the year, inflation was running at 13%.

Politics these days is going through a very turbulent period but it wasn’t much different 41 years ago. In 1973 people on the land were very apprehensive. On 5th December 1972, Gough Whitlam had swept into power, heralding a three year period of rapid change and political and economic turbulence before he was dismissed by Sir John Kerr on 11th November 1975.

But on Tuesday 21st in the third week of August 1973, while Canberra was in an uproar over the Federal Budget, in Gunnedah, NSW, something very positive was taking place. It was the start of a new event, which over the next four decades would have a huge impact of primary industry in Australia. It was AgQuip.

AgQuip forever changed the way rural and agricultural products and services are sold to people on the land in Australia. It was the first truly commercial sales promotion run by marketing people, bringing and selling products and services to country people, says Max Ellis, AgQuip's founder and Chief Executive from 1973 to 1984, the man who came up with the distinctive name AgQuip.

AgQuip also spelt the end of the major city shows like the Royal Easter Show as venues for agricultural machinery. By taking the machinery to where it was being used, AgQuip catered for the specialised needs of rural producers and kept fairy floss to a minimum. For many companies it became a rare chance to talk with and get a response from the people, the products and services were created for, and many a designer has gone back to the drawing board after long discussions with the savvy consumers at AgQuip.

Another thing that set AgQuip aside to this day from other field days was the absence of any entry or parking fees. Chief Executive Max Ellis conceived AgQuip as a gigantic outdoor rural and agricultural department store and as he frequently said … “whoever heard of Myers charging customers to come into the store”. Placing the financial responsibilities for under-writing the event on the sellers was a major part in building AgQuip into one of the world's major rural and agricultural field days, which it remains to this day.

Initiated by Radio Stations 2TM and 2MO, the event was designed as a strictly commercial activity, run by promotional and marketing professionals with the backing of the substantial New England Radio Network. Having launched the Australasian Country Music Awards in January 1973, Radio 2TM was taking commercial radio from a passive role as a medium for carrying other people's advertising, into an active role in creating and running business events of their own. In 1973 that was a media innovation in itself. It was picked up in many areas notably in Toowoomba where DDQ-10 TV started FarmFest field days after Manager Laurie Burrows visited the second AgQuip.

The first AgQuip was staged at the Gunnedah Riverside Racecourse from noon on Tuesday 21st to Saturday 25th August, 1973, over four and a half long days, a schedule that was quickly revised for the following year when the current Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday pattern was established. This schedule firmly flagged the event as a commercial activity tailored to the requirements of companies and people on the land, not weekend urban tyre kickers.

It was officially opened by Deputy Leader of the Opposition, Leader of the Country Party and farmer Doug Anthony, who courageously agreed to be flown from the airport into the site in a tiny, experimental 2 seater, McCulloch J2 Autogyro, which was being tested in Australia by De Havilland. Only later was it learnt that it has no license to carry passengers! No OHS in those days!!

The opening was to have been broadcast live over 2TM and 2MO but industrial problems at Telecom made that difficult. It was also the day of the new government's first budget, which was certainly not welcomed by all!

As the dates for AgQuip had been carefully selected after a detailed survey of weather statistics, which showed it was historically the driest time of year you can imagine the organisers surprise when it actually rained during those first days, a phenomenon that didn't occur again during AgQuip for at least the next 15 years.

With some 63 exhibitors set up in the middle of the racecourse, the event attracted an estimated 23,000 people and created traffic jams that amazed and gratified everyone, though the local police were caught unawares when they suddenly found vehicles queuing up in the main street of Gunnedah some 2 kms from the site. There were over ten acres of display and even room for tractor and implement demonstrations, which were very popular.

From day one, getting electricity to the sites was a big consideration. Inside the racecourse in a fairly small area an underground grid was laid, powered by a large 90 kva Volvo generator which had been purchased from entrepreneur Harry Miller, who had used it as a standby unit for his production of "Hair" at the Capital Theatre in Sydney.

Of the 63 companies listed for the first event only a handful are attending AgQuip 2012 under their original name including Combined Rural Traders (CRT), Gyral Implements, Honda, Suzuki and Yamaha. Many other names and brands still exist but appear under other banners including Australian Wire Industries, Dalgety, Davey Dunlite, G.M.H., New Holland, International, Chamberlain Deere, Ford. And of course many companies have just disappeared.

There were many problems with the racecourse site, which was sticky black soil but access was also a problem because heavy machinery had to be moved over the sacred turf of the racecourse. A timber causeway was built but it had to be moved every day so training could continue. The Racecourse committee were sympathetic because most of them were farmers themselves but there was a lot of pressure to look after the grass track.

Most of the catering was handled by the Racecourse caterer, Mrs Sheila Morgan who did such a sterling job that she and her marvellous staff stayed with AgQuip when we moved to the present site in 1977. Steak sandwiches and pies were favourites in those days but the then famous TV cooking expert Margaret Fulton appeared at the show to judge a 2TM promotional "Search For The Super Sandwich".

In these days of massive dependence on outsourcing specialists, the garbage system, though effective enough was something of an in house joke. Using Network General Manager Warwick Higginbotham's 404 Peugeot ute, Max Ellis the AgQuip CEO, Warwick and another 2TM staff member, Ray Bish, waited until everyone had gone home, before manhandling 44 gallon drums of rubbish up on to the tray, emptying it later at the racecourse dump before redistributing the empty drums around the field.

One of the innovations at AgQuip 1973, was the giant 60 foot x 40 foot inflatable building that was hired for the event for a schedule of seminars. Dubbed the Agri-Dome it was a great attraction. Made of thick, heavy plasticised canvas material it was a nightmare to erect and maintain especially in the wet and there was always a worry that the electricity would fail and the building would deflate while people were in it. However, because visitors were so busy inspecting and buying equipment, they had little time for industry seminars so the idea was abandoned along with the Agri-Dome.

AgQuip was a pioneer event in many ways. It was probably the first truly commercial field day with an avowed policy of bringing customers to companies with products and services to sell. The famous slogan "Bring Your Cheque Book" was devised to ensure that people knew AgQuip, unlike the National Field Days at Orange, was an active market place. And of course, history showed it worked with many hundreds of millions of dollars of products and services being traded during AgQuip over the years.

As a full professional and commercial organization AgQuip also broke new ground for participants. Each year sales people personally visited hundreds of companies all over the nation and getting to know them and building trust and relationships that endure to this day. AgQuip also offered innovative promotional and service packages which included product advertising and many services like cranes and forklifts, electricity, water and so on which most field days charged for in those days. And rather than being made to feel they were there on sufferance, AgQuip worked to make companies feel welcome, recognising the fact that most exhibitors had much more field day experience than the organisers had at that time.

Everyone these days is familiar with the very distinctive AgQuip theme music. After all it’s been played on radio and TV through our region literally thousands of times over the past 40 years now. Of course that’s because the event was originally owned by a media group, the New England Network, with access to unlimited advertising on local radio and TV. But not in newspapers so they created the AgQuip Rural Mail, a 24 page tabloid (now 64 pages), which was a first in many ways. The Rural Mail carried only advertising and product advertorial from exhibitors. The only ‘editorial’ was some brief promotional material about the field day on the front page. In that first year 30,000 copies were sent to every rural mail box in the north west. It was very successful and in later years expanded greatly and was distributed in many other areas.

By 1976 AgQuip had more than doubled in size with 136 exhibitors covering eight hectares of display area and close to an estimated 80,000 visitors. The racecourse was full. The new 121 hectare site to the west of Gunnedah was purchased from the late Cec Herbert and after extensive preparation of the field, a move was made in August 1977.

The 14 kilometres of roads on the new site were initially dirt, but were later covered with coal an .. "An overwhelming memory of the first years of the new site was of dust, despite endless watering by tankers, vast clouds of dust billowing in from the huge carparks each afternoon as thousands of people headed home," Mr Ellis recalled.

AgQuip was full of great promotions Mr Ellis remarked. In 1978 Australian Wire Industries brought a large elephant to their site, while in 1982 impresario Harry Miller used a diamond giveaway to promote his rock-pickers. Another AgQuip first occurred in 1982 when Leeton Citrus Juices produced over a million fruit juice cartons with one side featuring a large notice about AgQuip and when it was on.

The early 1980s were exciting times, setting the pattern for the years ahead. The first AgQuip Handbook was published in 1980 and many other innovations followed including the first name sponsorship by the Commonwealth Development Bank in 1981.

Attendance soared to well over the 100,000 mark, huge crowds which Mr Ellis believes were not exceeded until recent years, while exhibitor numbers of over 400 in 1984 remained unequalled until 1995. In those days organisers quoted on stand sales of at least $10,000,000 and follow up sales of some $50,000,000 … and that was thirty years ago!!

As an example of AgQuip’s pulling power, in 1982 the organisers quoted a Mr Graham Mott from the Mallee in Victoria who said he had met 12 people at the field day who lived within 40 kilometres of his farm. Another Victorian from the tiny town of Speed said he had come looking for a hand to find spare part which he found. Even more surprisingly, he met his next door neighbour on the Gunnedah field.

Not all the innovations worked. After a trip Max Ellis and three other AgQuip executives made to the giant Farm Progress Show in the United States (US) in 1980, an attempt was made to introduce a large display area for participants to utilise for product launches. In the US individual exhibitors utilised their own arena but back at Gunnedah the whole idea fell flat because the Australian exhibitors were just to busy with customers to leave their stands.

Another change was the gradual decline in machinery demonstrations which in the beginning had been a core feature of the field day. Exhibitors became reluctant to demonstrate new and very expensive machinery at AgQuip. Their ideal was to demonstrate on the customers own property.

In the early 80s, Gunnedah had also taken AgQuip to its heart with a full scale street festival to celebrate the sales bonanza it brought to the town. The Billy Boiling contest was fiercely contested with Graham Waters snatching the title from Snowy Weston in 1982 with a record 6 minutes and 29 seconds from start to boil.

In those exciting early 80s AgQuip had a vast media coverage all over the nation including Sydney. Apart from 2TM and 2MO broadcasts, the ABC Country Hour was broadcast from the AgQuip Headquarters for several years and journalists and broadcasters flocked to the event.

In eventful 1982 AgQuip executives found themselves in the NSW Supreme Court because they had refused to book in an American company which wanted to sell cheap second hand US agricultural machinery at the event. After innocently taking a phone booking from America it was realised that such a display would not be in the best interests of Australian companies or farmers and the booking was rejected. However, after a torrid examination in Sydney the court ruled AgQuip had to let the American in as they had accepted the booking in the first place. The US company set up but failed to sell any machinery and disappeared from AgQuip history.

Catering for some 100,000 people had become a huge commitment and by 1980 30,000 meat pies, 30,000 icy poles and some 36,000 cans of drink were sold as well as countless other meals were being sold out of the specially built kiosks. AgQuip’s own catering service was housed in a specially built kitchen where teams of workers prepared tons of sandwiches and other food. Nowadays, the food service is tendered out to private contractors.

No history of AgQuip would be complete without mention of the first site manager, Max Keating, and his off-sider Graham Thibault, according to Mr Ellis.

"Max and Graham showed a level of commitment and sheer friendliness which played a huge part in creating the great relationship between AgQuip and its exhibitors which continues to this day through the present site managers, Dick and Helen Catford."

There was also tremendous support for AgQuip from Gunnedah people recalls Mr Ellis... people like the late Curly Maunder of Cornishs, Jack Snape, David Dunne and many others. Gunnedah and Tamworth crane and forklift operators such as Marshall’s Cranes and Gibson’s or GBP Cranes have from the start or Gunnedah Trade Wastes Max Hausfeld, all who provided high professional and very understanding service to AgQuip customers.

Gunnedah Shire Council has always been very supportive from the early days when Bill Clegg was Mayor right through to the present Mayor Adam Marshall.

One outstanding example of how Gunnedah people became involved is the Nursing Mothers facility, which was started by Nancy Jaeger in the early events and has cared for AgQuip babies for well over 30 years.

Over its 40 years a huge number of people have been involved in setting up and running AgQuip and, according to Mr Ellis, their dedication, expertise and enthusiasm have been the key to the success of the promotion.

In particular Mr Ellis paid tribute to people who were at 2TM in the sometimes difficult early years. These include the AgQuip originals, Warwick Higginbotham, Kevin Knapp and George Arklay, and others like Ray Bish, Bob Kirchner, Phil Corbett, Sandra Tully, Barry Harley, Kate Nugent, Bob Holley, Gary Robertson, Ian King, Terry Hill, Bob Lipman, Jim Hynes, Trevor Carter, Del Foote and many others. In fact, he says, virtually everyone at 2TM, 2MO and BAL Marketing were involved in some way!

Mr Ellis left AgQuip in 1984. The chief executive's position was filled by his off-sider and friend, Barry Harley who left in 1986 and was followed by Jim Hynes until the event was bought by Rural Press in 1995. Barry returned and continues to run AgQuip after an involvement of around 25 years, a record almost equalled by Operations Manager Kate Nugent who joined 2TM in 1981.

Media group and The Land publisher Rural Press Limited bought AgQuip from its original owners in 1995. Since then Barry and his Rural Press Events team has continued to grow and develop the event. With Sales Manager Dianna Lockwood, Operations Manager Kate Nugent, Sandy Patterson (recently retired), Yasmin Jackson, Luci Bolton, Aaron Harley, Beth Leese. Sandy McIntosh, Dick Catford and Paul Rowe who has been running the AgQuip Public Address system now for over fifteen years.

Over the years there had been many innovations and changes. Though faced with severe droughts and other natural disasters, AgQuip has proved as resilient as the primary industry producers it serves. In fact the expertise and experience that AgQuip has generated over the past 40 years is now on display at many other events. Rural Press Events (now a part of Fairfax Media) owns and runs FarmFest on the Darling Downs and runs the major New Zealand Central District Field Days at Feilding in the North Island, as well as initiating and contributing to other smaller events all over Australia and New Zealand.

General Manager Barry Harley, like all those who have spent years of their lives developing this great event, is still just as enthusiastic as he was when he first attended AgQuip in 1979.

“It’s been a privilege to be a part of one of the great innovations in Australia’s primary industry development. Over the past four decades we estimate at least three million visitors would have come to the cumulative 122 days of the event, in the process spending hundreds of millions of dollars on machinery and services. These people from the land have grasped the opportunity of acquiring and learning about new equipment and ways of farming and the feedback they have given exhibitors has, in turn, enriched those companies. Many have prospered through attending AgQuip and made the field say an integral part of their professional activity.”

“I believe Australian primary industry would be a less efficient and poorer in every way without AgQuip”, said Mr Harley!

Source: Farmonline, 2015