Agricultural exhibitions probably began as bazaars or fairs. Through the centuries these gatherings diverged somewhat from their original function and became primarily competitive showplaces for livestock and produce and settings for the display of new agricultural technology, as well as social events. Canadian agricultural exhibitions derive much of their character from the agricultural fairs of England and Scotland. North America's first such fair was held in NS in 1765. Fairs continue to make important contributions to Canada's rural society by providing social and educational opportunities, and for all Canadians by helping to improve agriculture through competition.
Contemporary agricultural exhibitions vary greatly: the majority are country "fairs" lasting one or 2 days and featuring a cross-section of agricultural products and local crafts. Regional exhibitions, lasting 3-4 days, are less common, encompass areas served by several local fairs and satisfy the desire for larger events featuring greater competition. A third type of fair, the provincial exhibition, draws exhibits from a still larger geographic area and tends to be more "commercial" in that dealers in farm machinery and other farm technologies display their wares. On the interprovincial or national level, Toronto's Royal Winter Fair, probably Canada's best-known agricultural exhibition, serves a great cross-section of the industry. Other well-known exhibitions are the Royal Manitoba Winter Fair at Brandon and the Calgary Stampede. Most recently, large, specialized shows have appeared. For example, well over 1000 head of cattle are exhibited at the annual Agribition in Saskatchewan and Ag-Ex in Manitoba. The Annual Farm Progress Show in Regina represents another type of specialization: agricultural equipment worth millions of dollars and representing the most modern agricultural technology is exhibited.
The main agricultural product exhibited in most of the regional, interprovincial or national exhibitions is livestock, although grain, fruit, poultry, pets, vegetables, flowers and crafts are important features. The spirit of competition of these events has contributed to improvements in livestock breeds. The horse show is an important livestock exhibit because of its entertainment value and the quality of product displayed. Exhibition activities have been largely responsible for the development of keen national and international equestrian competition. Standards of desirability in the appearance of commercial livestock (eg, cattle, sheep, hogs) change as consumer diet preferences change. Swine, for example, have been bred over a period of many years to be long and lean rather than short and fat, as consumers opt for less fat in their diets. Similarly, size and breed of beef cattle have changed to reflect perceived production efficiencies assumed to be inherent in the more rapid weight increase of larger breeds.
Exhibitions have played a special role in personal development through the promotion of 4-H Club programs. The 4-H movement really started when, early in the century, exhibitions began sponsoring livestock competitions for youth. Exhibitions continue to change along with the public's desire to observe new developments in the agriculture and food system, to remain current in standards of excellence and to enjoy the opportunity to socialize with people from a cross-section of the community at large. See also Canadian National Exhibition; Agricultural Education.