By NMB Curatorial Team

History | April 19, 2024

Reading time: 5 minutes

The Agricultural Show, or Ag Show, is a beloved annual event in Bermuda that showcases a vibrant display of local agriculture, crafts, and culture. Held over three days in the Botanical Gardens, it features displays of livestock, produce, baked goods, crafts, and educational exhibits. For many Bermudians, memories of the Ag Show evoke the aroma of freshly baked goods, the sounds of music and laughter, the sights of face painting, cotton candy, and critters (both real and vegetable), and the coveted Ag show ribbon. But beyond its entertainment value, the Ag Show holds deep historical significance, reflecting Bermuda’s agricultural heritage and cultural identity.

The roots of Bermuda’s agriculture history trace back to the early days of settlement in the early 17th century. The arrival of the Sea Venture in 1609 marked the earliest recorded agricultural experimentation, as survivors sought to cultivate American and European plants in Bermuda’s subtropical climate. With subsequent waves of settlers, farming and agriculture became integral to Bermudian life. Tobacco emerged as a leading cash crop, with skilled workers, including enslaved Hispanic Africans, Angolans, and Native Americans, playing crucial roles in its cultivation.

Early farming scene. The Hall of History by Graham Foster

Despite initial successes, Bermuda’s agricultural economy faced challenges such as soil depletion, hurricanes, pests, limited land availability, and competition from other colonies. By the early 18th century, the economic focus had shifted to maritime industries like shipbuilding, salt raking, and privateering, leading to a decline in farming. Conflicts like the American War of Independence further strained Bermuda’s food supply, highlighting its dependence on external sources.

Although the onion had become an established export in the early 19th century, when farmers relied heavily on enslaved labor—mostly women and children—local agricultural production was not enough to sustain the Island. The maritime economy was also waning as American competitors made inroads in shipping, and the shipbuilding materials and technology of the Industrial Revolution made the Bermuda industry increasingly outdated.

By the late 1830s, repeated food shortages highlighted the need to develop agriculture. These efforts were given life with the arrival of Governor Reid in 1838. On his arrival Reid described the Island as covered with “cedar, rocks and weeds.” He promoted the importation and trial of new seeds and plants and encouraged Bermudians to enrich and irrigate the soil. He also recognised the need to increase labour to support the resurrection of Bermuda agriculture. Immigrants from Madeira, Azores, Cape Verde, and Europe brought expertise and labour to boost food production.

Portuguese farmers harvesting onions and tomatoes and fertilising crops with raw seaweed. The Hall of History, by Graham Foster.

In the UK, agricultural shows emerged in the 18th century as gatherings for local farmers to exhibit their livestock, crops, and equipment while facilitating knowledge exchange and friendly competition. The Royal Agricultural Society of England, established in 1838, played a pivotal role in organising and standardising these shows nationwide. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they grew in scale and popularity, becoming integral to rural life and offering opportunities for networking, technological advancement, and market exposure. 

Meanwhile, in Bermuda, the Agricultural Exhibition traces its origins to 1843, when Governor Reid spearheaded the first event to ignite local interest in agriculture. A revitalisation of Bermuda’s agricultural product ensued with crops like onions, lilies, arrowroot, potatoes, and tomatoes eventually becoming prized exports. Eventually, local shipping could no longer cope with the quantity of produce, and the Government began to subsidise a weekly steamer to take the crops to North America.

“Planting Potatoes, Bermuda.” Photographed and Published by Kilburn Brothers. c. 1874

Packing onions into crates in the field, circa 1895-1900.

Late nineteenth century lily fields, photographed by N.E. Lusher

Casks of arrowroot waiting for shipment from St. David’s Island. Arrowroot became one of the mainstays of Bermuda’s agriculture.

Front Street during crop season in the late nineteenth century, photographed by N.E. Lusher

The onion trade, in particular, flourished, and was so dominant that Bermudians became known as “Onions”.  Agriculture provided a significant source of income for Bermudian farmers until changes in trade policies and natural disasters led to its decline in the late 19th century. Despite challenges, Bermuda continued to diversify its agricultural output, with crops like potatoes, celery, citrus fruits, and Easter lilies gaining prominence.

Bermuda, potato field in Warwick Parish bordered by oleander and farmhouse, c. 1919. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries

Aerial view of Southampton circa 1919, showing Evans Bay Pond and Franks Bay and extensive farmland.


Throughout the Island, farming traditions persisted well into the 20th century, with families cultivating a variety of crops on family-owned plots. However, developments such as the construction of a US base in St. David’s and luxury hotels, most notably in Tucker’s Town, reshaped the landscape, displacing farmers and eroding traditional farming practices. Over the years, the Agricultural Exhibition has adapted to reflect changes in Bermuda’s agricultural landscape while maintaining its status as a beloved cultural tradition eagerly anticipated by locals and visitors alike. Initially held bi-annually, the show found its permanent home in the Botanical Gardens in 1922 and transitioned to an annual format in 1955. 

Aerial view of Kindley Air Force Base  in early stages of construction, late 1941 or early 1942.

For centuries agriculture has played a significant role in Bermuda’s economy, especially during periods when other industries faced difficulties. Although agriculture continues to be a cherished part of Bermuda’s heritage, with the increased popularity of home gardens and local farmers markets and stalls, the Island still grapples with ongoing sustainability challenges due to increases in the cost of living and limited arable land.

While Bermuda’s agricultural traditions may face challenges in the modern era, initiatives like the AgraLiving Institute and governmental agricultural schemes are actively working to preserve and revitalise this vital aspect of Bermudian culture. Their efforts to promote local farming and provide agricultural education not only enhance food security and sustainability but also honour the Island’s heritage.

The celebration of local agriculture in the Ag Show serves as a continuation of Bermuda’s legacy of farming and cultivation. From its early days of settlement, agriculture has been integral to Bermudian life, with crops like tobacco, onions, and potatoes shaping the Island’s economy and culture. Through the Ag Show, this legacy is honoured and celebrated, with displays of livestock, produce, and crafts showcasing the ingenuity and resilience of Bermudian farmers.

By highlighting the importance of local farming and agricultural traditions, the Ag Show ensures that this legacy endures, inspiring future generations to appreciate and uphold Bermuda’s agricultural heritage.

So, if you have the opportunity to visit the Ag Show this year, don’t miss it. It not only celebrates Bermuda’s agricultural achievements but also serves as a vibrant reminder of the resilience and creativity of Bermudian farmers and artisans, ensuring that their legacy lives on for generations to come.

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