By Amanda Brodhagen
Ontario’s agricultural fairs have a long history with many fairs predating Confederation. The first recorded fair in the province dates back to 1792 with the Agricultural Society of Upper Canada, which has since been renamed to the Niagara Agricultural Society located on Niagara-on-the-Lake. From there the concept of agricultural fairs spread in popularity and became established in rural communities across the province by the 1800s. While fairs have changed over the years, perhaps one of the biggest changes in its long history is being witnessed today.
Since last year, hundreds of fairs have been forced to cancel due to COVID-19 and now more than a year later fall fairs are finding themselves in the same predicament as last year. Last fall, the Ontario government announced nearly $1 million in funding for agricultural and horticultural societies to help offset the financial losses due to the cancellation of fairs, but in a carefully worded statement, it said “for this year only” which means they should not expect it again this year.
While some fairs have chosen to cancel their fairs altogether for a second year in a row, some agricultural societies have taken this time to reimagine and retool their fairs for survival. The Rural Voice caught up with several agricultural societies in our region to find out how they’re doing and what we can expect for this coming fair season.
Listowel Agricultural Society (1856)
Listowel’s fair is a summertime event, typically July every year. The Listowel Fair was cancelled in 2020, but the agricultural society decided to move ahead with a virtual online presence leading up to and during the month of July sharing videos and historical photos through their social media channels. Later in the year, the agricultural society hosted a drive-in fireworks show, outdoor vendors show and a modified indoor Christmas craft show and two drive-through dinners – a roast beef dinner in October and a turkey dinner in late November.
Despite the outside-the-box thinking to operate during COVID, this vibrant and active agricultural society in Perth County has faced better days.
“We have now had over 14 months of almost no rental income. We are grateful for the financial assistance of OMAFRA to help prepare for upcoming agricultural fairs, the Ontario Trillium Resilient Communities Fund for funding to help us get ready for a time when we can re-open our facilities as well as our community who have been very supportive of our drive-thru meals, our drive-in fireworks show, our events in the fall of 2020, our recent Shop North Perth Local raffle draw as well as the support of our organization as a whole,” said Elizabeth Johnston president of the Listowel Agricultural Society. “It has made navigating these many months of uncertainty and lost income much more manageable,” she said.
While fairs like Listowel offer something for everyone, youth involvement has always been a focal point. “Agricultural fairs are extremely important for youth in the community,” she said. “Whether it’s participating in the fair ambassador competition, a 4-H achievement show with livestock, a 4-H life skills competition, enjoying kids’ day activities, participating in the kids’ pedal tractor pull, learning about agriculture and where their food comes from or any of the other many events and activities that take place at the fair, youth are given the opportunity to showcase their talents and to have fun at a local, affordable event,” she added.
This year marks another milestone in the fair’s history – 165 years. Johnston says that plans are in the works for a modified fair which will include, a seed-growing competition (sunflowers, regular and giant-sized pumpkins), a community scavenger hunt/car rally, virtual photography, baby show and pet show competitions, a drive-in fireworks show and a drive-thru roast beef dinner. Events will span over the first two weeks of July with fireworks on July 16 and the roast beef dinner on July 18. Both of these events will be dependent on restrictions at the time.
For the 165th anniversary, the Listowel Agricultural Society is also planning a commemorative 500-piece puzzle and cookbook.
“We felt it is important to continue on with the tradition of having an agricultural fair in our community even if it is in a modified format with events, activities and competitions for the community to look forward to and to be able to engage in. Even though we aren’t able to meet in the traditional format of our fair with grandstand shows, livestock and homecraft competitions and the many events that encompass our fair, we still want to have events that people can be a part of within the community,” she said.
They’re keeping their fingers crossed for 2022 when they can hopefully resume to a more traditional fair and welcome the community back for in-person festivities.
Fergus Agricultural Society (1836)
The Fergus Fall Fair located in Wellington County cancelled their fair in 2020 and chose not to hold any alternative events, but did share some educational videos online, said Rebecca Hannam, chair of the agriculture committee.
“We were thinking it was going to be a one-year cancellation but because we cannot hold a traditional fair again in 2021, we are now putting a lot of effort into planning alternative events, including virtual fair competitions,” she said.
Hannam said the board has formed a committee of volunteers to focus on brainstorming and planning alternative events. She noted community members, especially young families, are looking for things to do during the pandemic and it would be an opportune time to gain new interest.
“We are considering everything from take-out supper fundraisers to drive-through educational events. We are hopeful that we can return to hosting an in-person fair in September 2022,” she said. “For many fairs this is the first time the word “cancellation” has even been brought up. To have to cancel two in a row, it’s quite a change from the norm,” she added.
Hannam makes a compelling case that agricultural fairs are becoming more important as communities like Centre Wellington grow. Since the beginning of the pandemic there’s been an urban exodus to small towns and rural areas like Fergus. While the new residents might not be accustomed to celebrating the bounty of the fall harvest, one can hope that they can find a connection with food and farming, explained Hannam.
Palmerston Agricultural Society (1879)
The Palmerston Fair was also cancelled last year. The agricultural society decided to host a few virtual meetings, but with all the uncertainty no one on the fair board wanted to take on planning an alternative event not knowing what the future would hold. Many people on the board were also happy to take a break and “many are at an age that the online options seemed daunting,” said Angela Schneider secretary of the Palmerston Agricultural Society. “Some others said that if there was no in-person fair, they were not helping,” she added.
Normally in the spring the agricultural society would put on a pre-seeding farmers’ BBQ and a Ladies Night. Given the restrictions with holding in-person events, the agricultural society decided to make this an online event with the help of SilentAuctonBiz.com, based out of Listowel. “They offered nonprofits free services to host an online auction. We bounced that idea around and many thought it was a great idea. I took on the role of organizing it and it took off,” she said.
The agricultural society was mindful of who they asked for donations knowing full well many businesses in their community have been hit hard with the pandemic. Instead, they decided to focus their efforts on reaching out to companies that haven’t been as impacted including machinery dealers, tile drainage companies and crop input dealers. “We also received lovely donations from people who normally show at the fair – sewing and baking,” she said.
The good news: it was a success!
“It drew in people from outside our area, so many had great fun bidding and watching as the bids went up as the auction closed,” she explained. “This would not likely have been as successful three years ago,” she added.
This year the agricultural society is working on planning a scavenger hunt to re-engage the community.
But Schneider worries that some fairs will not recover from the pandemic. “Fair [volunteers] are often older people … and many of these older people will not be back,” she said. “Fairs have always been changing but the most drastic change might be after the pandemic,” she pointed out.
Kirkton Agricultural Society (1869)
The Kirkton Fair was also cancelled last year and as Kirkton Agricultural Society President Amy Switzer said, “It is definitely difficult to plan things when government rules are always changing.”
“I was so devastated that there couldn’t be a fair last year, but excited at the thought of a 2021 fair. Now knowing that this year again will not be a ‘normal’ fair, I sometimes think when will we ever be able to have a normal fair again? It’s hard to plan for something and be all excited about it and then find out it has to be cancelled,” she added.
Looking ahead, the agricultural society felt strongly that it was keeping the community engaged while also following the guidelines provided by public health. The fair board held a drive-through chicken BBQ in May and plans to hold exhibits with scaled-back classes in a format that’s sanctioned.
“I think with more people over the last year growing bigger gardens (we all know how hard it was to find veggie seeds last year) people will be excited to have the chance to show off what they have been growing! Entries will be dropped off and judged over a few days to allow for physical distancing,” she said.
Other events planned permitting public health guidelines include, a socially distanced parade over fair weekend and a scavenger hunt.
Ontario is home to over 200 agricultural societies with many of them located in our communities of Grey, Bruce, Huron, Perth, Wellington and Oxford Counties. Now that you’ve heard from a few agricultural societies what their plans are, get engaged and let’s help these small fairs in our rural communities continue the tradition as some have done for almost two centuries. ◊