The gates of the Ancaster Agricultural Society fairgrounds opened wide in early June, heralding the possibility of an eventful season.
“We can’t wait to see (patrons) come in and see what the fairgrounds look like again,” said Tammy Quinn, AAS manager. “We had our gates closed and locked every day for such a long time, so just to be able to drive in, it just feels so much more welcoming.”
In September, the Ancaster Fair is scheduled with a modified live, virtual and drive-through event format.
Why it matters: Agricultural societies are at a critical planning stage and need fair attendance and safety protocol information from the province for programming this season. Fairs are a significant fundraiser and vital to the survival of ag societies across Ontario.
Quinn said challenges in organizing this year’s fair include difficulty predicting attendance numbers and lack of information on protocols for indoor events. Even the local public health unit can’t provide insight.
“This is our critical week. I need to have all of this information in so that we can put together an exhibit list and give it to our members and the general public, because they of course have to prepare,” Quinn said in late June.
Vince Brennan, manager of the Ontario Association of Agricultural Societies, has been working closely with the Ontario agriculture ministry to pin down exhibition numbers but questions remain.
He said fairs held in the United States showed no traceable COVID-19 spread numbers, likely because people were socially distanced and spent most of the three or four hours outside.
Most ag societies have acres of land to spread out food booths, midways, craft shows, competitions and events, said Brennan, and everyone is willing to make safety modifications.
“Everyone’s been very cooperative because they want to get back out, and they want to have some experiences happening again,” he said. “The smells, the touches and everything like that – people are hungry for it.”
If the U.S. numbers are a guide, ag societies should anticipate a surge in home craft, food, field crops and livestock submissions along with increased gate sales.
“People saw the same thing over 100 years ago as they came out of the (Spanish flu) pandemic,” Brennan said.
“They saw an explosion in attendance, participation and history is repeating. I think we should be bracing ourselves for a good few years here.”
He said the $5 million in provincial funding distributed to agriculture societies this spring helped them survive. Each received a base funding amount plus an additional amount based on percentage of their gate receipts from the last year before the pandemic. However, it won’t be enough to cover the shortfall.
“The economic impact that our fairs have in our communities is huge. Prior to COVID-19, the impact was close to $700 million in Ontario,” Brennan said. “Every dollar that is spent is nearly $5 back into that local community.”
Fairs provide opportunities for local service groups to run food booths as part of their fundraising and allows 4-H programs to host their achievement days, Brennan said.
“If we don’t have them (ag societies), that’s going to be a big hole in our community.”
Smaller fairs like those in Stirling and Madoc will likely fare better than large societies that depend on rentals to cover mortgages, taxes, staff salaries and utility bills, he added.
The Ancaster society saw as much as a 97 per cent drop in revenue at its worst point, said Quinn, adding it has dipped into savings to stay afloat despite using the Canadian Wage Subsidy program and running several fundraising initiatives in late 2020 and into 2021.
An Ontario Trillium Foundation resiliency grant allowed the AAS to upgrade its audio-visual and internet systems to support meetings for virtual and in-person events.
The grant also offset the cost of quadrupling safety protocols, including rapid test kits and mobile hand sanitizing stations to meet COVID-19 safety protocols for in-person events.
Economics aren’t the only challenge facing ag societies. Attracting and retaining volunteers has always been difficult, and 16 months of free time could lead some long-serving volunteers into retirement.
“If we don’t have volunteers, nothing is going to happen. That’s a real critical area of concern for all of our organizations,” Brennan said. “Are they still going to be interested? Are they still going to want to come out and help?”
He said part of the OAAS strategic plan is to encourage potential volunteers by informing them that an agricultural background is not required. An influx of urban dwellers into rural communities during the pandemic has provided an opportunity to engage new volunteers with fresh ideas and skills, he said.
Quinn said the pandemic gave some volunteers a chance to expand their input and increase participation through fundraising programs.
“We have our facilities that run all year long, and then we have four days of the Ancaster fair,” she said. “A good number of our membership is here because of the fair, and this was the opportunity for them to spend 365 days possibly being engaged.”
Ancaster began hosting a socially distanced fairground food truck fundraiser every Thursday night, along with an outdoor market, last summer and fall and again this summer now that protocols have eased.
Quinn said the response has been outstanding and they’re optimistic an outdoor garage sale will also drive attendance.
She said the AAS has been fortunate to have continued volunteer, community and sponsorship support and hopes it’s the same for all ag societies.
“The last thing any of us want is to get to next year and realize that our more than 200 Ontario fairs are depleted by even one.”