Agricultural societies were active in this area long before Saskatchewan entered Confederation. By the 1880s settlers were arriving in western Canada from regions that had well-established, active networks of agricultural societies - the Maritimes, for instance, since 1789. Many new settlers were aware of the way an organized society could help them exchange information on crop and animal husbandry; they saw the agricultural society as a way to display their crops, livestock and domestic arts and crafts. Perhaps more important, the societies provided an opportunity for the social gatherings so essential to the homesteaders. Fourteen exhibitions were held in 1885, and the growing value of agricultural societies was recognized.
Today, as in years past, this network of grassroots, non-political, volunteer-based organizations works to encourage agricultural production, support the agricultural industry, and enhance the quality of life. This they do by delivering programs and events, from business and industry specific trade shows to community celebrations; by providing facilities, from riding arenas to community halls; and by supporting other business and community groups. Seminars, workshops, field days, clinics and rallies happen year round in many communities through the efforts of the agricultural society. The fair provides an opportunity for rural-urban interface as well as a stage and marketplace for local artists and artisans; it also celebrates the local identity and character of the community. Youth groups and the 4-H movement in Saskatchewan are huge beneficiaries of agricultural society programming, and major users of their facilities. Many agricultural societies offer scholarships to deserving young members of their communities. Two programs - Boys and Girls Farm Camps and Ploughing Matches - are of particular interest in the history of agricultural societies.
No other activity of agricultural societies touched the lives of more farm boys and girls than the summer camps hosted at Class A and B fairs. From 1915 to 1978, more than 50,000 Saskatchewan youth demonstrated their skills in competition for the much coveted T. Eaton gold watch at Class B fairs, and for scholarship awards at Class A fair camps. The ploughing matches, designed to educate farmers in one of the most important farm practices in western Canada, became popular events because of the promotion they received from agricultural experts who saw good ploughing as the foundation of a good seedbed. After severe drought and hot dry winds caused serious soil erosion problems across much of central and southern Saskatchewan in the 1930s, new tillage practices were adopted and the plough fell out of favour. Amendments to the Agricultural Societies Act 1910 provided for the societies to be administered by the Extension Department, College of Agriculture, at the University of Saskatchewan. The University and its new College were to become the focal point of agricultural education, research and teaching; agricultural and home-making technology could readily be made available to farm families through educational activities sponsored by agricultural societies.
The first province-wide annual convention of agricultural societies took place in 1911, and the 1920 convention created the Saskatchewan Agricultural Societies' Association (SASA). Convention resolutions usually concerned themselves with agricultural production and marketing, the welfare of the rural community, environmental and health issues, and farm safety issues. Societies and the Association were distant from the federal level of government, but often directed resolutions at Ottawa. SASA was instrumental in developing conferences, tours and educational events with the Extension Department, and in helping organize the annual Farm and Home Week of the University of Saskatchewan. In 1975, the Saskatchewan Association of Fairs and Exhibitions (SAFE) came on the scene, acting for provincial (Class A) and regional (Class B) fairs in matters specific to larger operations, midways and attractions. The Saskatchewan Association of Agricultural Societies and Exhibitions was created in 1987 through the merger of SASA and SAFE. The board of directors includes elected representation of the member societies, and ex-officio membership for Saskatchewan Agriculture (SAFRR), Agriculture Canada (AAFC) and the University of Saskatchewan Extension Division. The Association, while not active in political issues, is assertive in speaking for better living conditions in rural Saskatchewan, for both farm and non-farm families. More recently the Association has played a greater role in supporting agricultural awareness programming at Saskatchewan's agricultural fairs.