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Royal Agricultural Winter Fair celebrates tradition, and evolves with the times

How does the 97-year-old fair keep attracting 300,000 a year? By sticking to core strategy, and keeping it new

Royal Agricultural Winter Fair celebrates tradition, and evolves with the times

It’s the world’s largest combined indoor agricultural and equestrian show — an incredible celebration of harvest time, animal husbandry and equine prowess. And on November 1, when “Country Comes to the City” opens for its 97th year, one of the questions in the air will be how this fair has managed to not only survive but thrive when, all around it, the city and the country have changed so much?

Rob Flack, president of this year’s Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, says, “For me, the magic is the tradition and the wonderful history of agriculture in Canada. And it is the showcasing of excellence in everything we do. You can talk to third-, fourth-, even fifth-generation attendees who continue to be inspired and want to come back every year. That loyalty and passion simply amazes me.”

His enthusiasm may not be a surprise. What’s a surprise for today’s farmers, instead, is how the fair keeps evolving based on the same strategy, and how successful it can be to rely on entertainment and “wow factors” to draw city crowds to learn about the business of farming.

Flack started visiting, then showing, at the fair as a young lad. Although he didn’t grow up in the country, he spent summers on his grandparents’ farm where he developed an interest in animals. He went on to study agriculture at the University of Guelph, and 40 years ago, went to work for Master Feeds where he is now CEO.

Charlie Johnstone, who came on board as the fair’s CEO five years ago, witnessed the passion of the exhibitors, volunteers and customers. He met exhibitors who plan their year around competing here. He saw people who visit year after year, come through the door, sniff deeply, smile and say, “Ah, it’s the Royal!”

Coming from the sport-and-entertainment sector, Johnstone sees the personal and professional value of the not-for-profit aspect of the fair that focuses on education and the relevance of farm and food. Despite his career of handling the roadblocks, obstacles and financial challenges that come with big-event operations, this job brought its own set of challenges.

Location is one example. “Being in downtown Toronto is both a huge opportunity and a huge challenge,” Johnstone says. “Today, 60 per cent of attendees come from outside the 905, and have to contend with traffic congestion and parking costs.” In a continuous effort to promote the GO train that stops right at Exhibition Place, some years ago a goat and its handler, accompanied by the paparazzi, rode the train from Burlington to Union Station, hoping to show 905-ers just how easy it is to get to the Royal.

Photo(s): The Royal Agricultural Winter Fair

Despite all its tradition, the fair is not above these cutting-edge publicity capers to bring people to the gate. Another year a one-ton Aberdeen Angus bull by the name of Stype Gudrun was led, huffing and snorting, into a Bloor Street china shop. The publicity man who engineered the stunt explained to the press that “Stype was stopping there, amid the Spode and Wedgwood, only briefly; he was really on his way to the fair.”

Visit the cattle barns in the evening and you might hear a group of farmers sitting around, complaining about what a pain it is to get their trailers and animals in. But mention the possibility of moving and light bulbs go off. To make it more accommodating for exhibitors, the directors approved significant upgrades to hydro and water in the barns last year and hired a barn manager to establish internal processes, making room so all competitions fit within the available space.

The challenge of maintaining traditions, including the location, is coupled with the need to constantly refresh — to be sure programs are current, and, better still, leading edge. “It has to keep evolving,” Johnstone says. “Our goal is 20 per cent new initiatives each year. New technologies, different social and digital mediums, including an updated website, are essential components.”

During the 1950s and ’60s when populations shifted from rural to urban areas, many people relied on the Royal to keep them in touch with their agricultural roots. Parents, in particular, began to visit the fair annually to educate their children with the interactive exhibits. With the turn of the century, the board and staff recognized the Royal was not representing the ethnic shift in Toronto’s population. Attempts were made to attract a broader spectrum of people, with the most significant response coming as a result of students who visited on school trips then returning with their families on the weekend.

School groups are an integral thread in the fabric of the Royal. From the outset, the fair’s directors have sponsored a full program for young people. With 14 education centres, students have fun enjoying hands-on experiences and learning all about what agriculture means to Canada and the world. Many of these students have never been outside the city; others are first-generation Canadians who have had zero exposure to agriculture. Children still arrive thinking chocolate milk comes from Jersey cows.

Another challenge surfaced last year when teachers were encouraged to boycott events at Exhibition Place due to a labour dispute between the City of Toronto and the IATSE (International Association of Theatre Stage Employees) union, resulting in a 25 per cent drop in student attendance. To rekindle student attendance, the fair has accommodated more chaperones — providing complimentary tickets to ensure the ratio of chaperones to students is one to five (compared to one to 10 in previous years). To further assist teachers, the Royal’s website has a dedicated curriculum-related link for teachers and an increased social media presence.

Food has always been part of the fair’s mandate and the staff see it as an important attraction and the great unifier that reaches every family. Johnstone notes that “the quality and sustainability of the food we eat has become a hot-button topic for Canadian consumers.” The tradition of showcasing the very best in food takes on an even more important aspect this year with the dedication of a 5,000-square-foot area to accommodate Spotlight on Local. Presented by Metro Grocery Stores, it will feature some of the most innovative foods being made in the province and new competitions (ice cream, hot sauces and preserved meats) based on the latest food trends. As well, the Burnbrae Farms Culinary Academy is returning this year, where visitors cook alongside a celebrity chef and chefs address the increasing diversity and tastes of Toronto.

Photo: The Royal Agricultural Winter Fair

Moving forward with the times, last year the Royal signed a five-year agreement with the University of Guelph to showcase how the university’s discoveries are helping to sustainably feed a growing world population, while training the agricultural leaders of tomorrow through careers in agriculture and agribusiness. “A lot of kids don’t know that being a farmer doesn’t necessarily mean you are wearing overalls and a straw hat,” says marketing and communications director Bobby Arthur.

Over the years, the Royal Horse Show, too, has faced its own challenges. Gayle MacPherson, former horse show chair and the first woman president of the Royal, speaks of the time when Europeans no longer wanted to fly their horses over. “We didn’t have prize money to match European competitions,” she says. “People love the international classes and the Nation’s Cup, so the solution was to ante up and pay travel costs for a select group of four or five riders.”

The show boasts a huge variety of competitions open to all ages — from hunters and jumpers to dressage horses and all the different breeds that pull carts, coaches and colossal wagons. Or, as one former president notes, “there are horses that go up and down and horses that go round and round.” No matter what type, the emphasis is on maintaining its status as a world-class competition.

The renowned RCMP Musical Ride — always a surefire drawing card — returns this year. Horse show attendees experience the pageantry of 32 men and women in scarlet coats on sleek, jet-black Canadian-bred horses performing choreographed cavalry drills to music and the sound of pounding hooves.

There are few indoor horse shows in North America and the Royal’s maintains an excellent rating among competitors because it is a high-end event, has excellent stabling and is a great equine trade fair. The Royal’s magic for Gayle MacPherson is seeing these beautiful, disciplined animals handled with such incredible skill. “It has kept me coming back every year since 1965,” she says.

John Fullerton, who grew up on the family farm near Paisley, Ont., first came to the Royal 31 years ago, settling into his trailer on the parking lot behind the barns. During the day, he groomed hackney ponies, showed horses, worked on the gate of the breeding horse ring, then changed into white tie and tails as a ring committee volunteer at the evening horse shows. Reflecting on his experience, he says, “You know the thing about the Royal is that if you went there to volunteer or to compete, you would feel like a somebody.”

At the horse barns, the cattle-judging rings and the competitions for the best butter sculpture, giant vegetable or jams and jellies, you’ll hear many stories like this. Reflecting on the competitions, Don Rickard, a past president and Ontario farmer says, “They remain as important and as popular as ever because everyone wants the red ribbon. If you want to be considered a successful farmer, breeder, or grower you want to be judged against the best. That happens at the Royal.”


By 1910, when every Canadian province had a thriving agricultural fair, rumblings began about the need for a national event that featured exhibits from every part of the country. Three years on, farmers and politicians launched a National Livestock and Dairy Show at Toronto’s Exhibition Place, but it didn’t become an annual event due to the outbreak of the First World War.

Not until 1918 was the quest for a truly national agricultural fair renewed by several prominent Ontario farmers. Leading the group was W.A. Dryden, an iron-willed Shorthorn breeder from Brooklin, Ont. They envisioned a fair that would feature competitive classes for all breeds of livestock and varieties of Canadian agricultural products, while attracting the best exhibits from each of the then-nine provinces. Dryden realized that an agricultural show without an entertainment aspect would not bring in the crowds. He proposed that the fair should include a horse show and should be strategically timed between the National Horse Show, held in New York in November, and the Chicago International Livestock Exposition, in December. Recognizing the need to get the support of breed associations, a meeting of 48 accredited delegates was held, where it was agreed that they would need to provide accommodation for 700 horses, 800 beef cattle, 600 dairy cattle, 1,000 sheep, 1,000 hogs and 10,000 poultry.

When considering a site, cities deemed to be suitable were given a chance to bid. Following a spirited campaign, the choice narrowed to two fierce rivals, Toronto and Hamilton. On voting day, the votes of the committee members were equally divided, leaving the tiebreaker to the chair — none other than Dryden, the man who had envisioned a national agricultural show.

Toronto offered to provide a site on the grounds of Exhibition Place and to put up a $1 million building. Federal and provincial governments, national breed associations and a wide range of businesses came onside with financial support. As with any project of this size and complexity, there were roadblocks and obstacles. Construction delays slowed the opening by a year. At the first Royal on November 22, 1922, 22,000 people reportedly filed through the gates on opening day. Over the course of a week, attendance was estimated at more than 150,000, surprising even the optimists. Also in attendance were 1,850 horses, 2,500 cattle, 700 swine and 9,100 poultry, from every province in the country. Today the attendance of the human variety averages 300,000.

Few if any large-scale events bring together as many different people from as many backgrounds as the Royal. Making it all work is a team of board members, professional staff, 500 dedicated volunteers, and generous sponsors. With, of course, assistance from all those animals.

“The magic that was kindled 97 years ago can still be ignited today, three, four or five generations later,” says Rob Flack. “It is a testimony to those that started this noble idea. That’s why I am proud to serve on the board, and why I want to make sure that no matter how we reinvent ourselves, we never lose that magic.”

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