Local agricultural societies facing hardship during pandemic’s second year

WELLINGTON COUNTY – For a second consecutive year, local agricultural societies are struggling to navigate their way through the pandemic.

Agricultural fairs bring in millions of dollars to local towns, but nearly all in-person events have been postponed yet again because of COVID-19.

Fairs are typically the main source of income for local agricultural societies.

“The big thing is losing momentum,” said Wayne Pheffer, District 10 provincial director for the Ontario Association of Agricultural Societies (OAAS).

“When you lose your fairs for two years, it’s hard to get back in line.”

Pheffer said he believes local agricultural societies could be taking a permanent hit. Even when the pandemic is over, he says people will still be hesitant to go back into a public setting like a fair.

“It will be hard to get back going again. (Local agricultural societies) had a great thing going for so long,” he said.

Several agricultural societies have tried to work around pandemic restrictions, holding virtual and contactless events where possible.

Pheffer also described how difficult it has been for fall fairs to hold any in-person events. The necessary public health precautions make it nearly impossible to realistically put anything together, as a lot of work and monitoring would need to go into keeping people physically distanced and safe.

In Wellington County, despite pandemic restrictions, many agricultural societies have not outright cancelled their fairs this year.

Instead, they are finding creative solutions to be able to hold virtual, and even some in-person events, as safely as possible.

Carl Billiald, president of the Arthur Agricultural Society, said he was hoping this year would be different, but the society’s board of directors has decided to cancel all in-person events again.

Billiald said although they are not the same as in-person events, Arthur had success last year with virtual events.

“Last year we did a virtual online fall fair,” Billiald said.

“It was successful, and we are planning on doing this again this year. My belief is virtual fairs are here to stay.”

Arthur’s online fair in 2020 included a scavenger hunt throughout the town of Arthur and online antique displays.

“We also asked people to take pictures of things they would normally enter into the fair,” Billiald said.

“For our car show we had people take pictures of their cars since we could not have an in-person event.”

Billiald said last year the virtual fair even included people giving virtual tours of their farms.

“We wanted to keep it simple and do things well, rather than do too much,” he said.

Billiald said last year there were no financial awards for winners at the Arthur Fair, but this year they are planning on bringing financial awards back and asking for donations again.

“It didn’t feel right to ask for donations last year, given the circumstances. But this year, donations are back, and so [too are] financial awards.”

Billiald is still not giving up hope for a possible scaled-back, in-person fair if restrictions ease up in the coming months. However, he said he feels this is very unlikely.

The Drayton-Mapleton Agricultural Society has also gotten creative in an attempt to work around pandemic restrictions.

“We’ve done the odd take-out dinner,” said Jim Zantinge, former president of the society and now a board member.

“We’re trying to at least give people the option of virtually showing their produce gardens and we are trying to raffle off lawn-care equipment.”

Zantinge said it is still unclear what the delivery of this year’s Drayton-Mapleton Fair will look like.

“We’ll be making more announcements as the summer progresses. Hopefully in the future, our fair will fully return to normal, but it could involve more online stuff as well, like photography. It’ll all come down to decisions being made at the time.”

Zantinge said the pandemic has also made it difficult to keep close contact with supporters and sponsors.

“Volunteers are hard to find in the best of times, so we are worried about who’s going to be left.”

John McPhee, president of the Mount Forest Agricultural Society, was less optimistic.

Recently, Mount Forest decided to postpone this year’s fair outright.

“Basically, we haven’t got any plans for this year,” McPhee said.

“There seemed to be no interest in doing any other little things (at a recent meeting with other agricultural society members) to see what we could do.”

The pandemic has also caused uncertainty in Palmerston.

Angela Schneider, fair secretary for the Palmerston Agricultural Society, said the official plans for this year’s fair have not yet been formalized.

“We decided we wouldn’t be able to have a fair as we normally would,” Schneider said.

“However, we have begun to plan some independent events that will take place socially distanced. It all depends on the lockdown and where we are.”

Schneider said Palmerston is hoping to put together a scavenger hunt activity through an online app, where people can upload photos. They already have 30 locations for the event.

Schneider said Palmerston has also tried other things during the pandemic as well.

“In April, we ran an online auction. We also sold steaks we would normally use for our barbecue. We sold them frozen and individually wrapped. This went really well for us.”

Tayler Black, president of the Fergus Agricultural Society, noted the pandemic has caused significant hardship for the society, not only financially.

“Our annual events, including the fair, are not only our main source of income as an organization, but more importantly, they’re our primary method of delivering on our organizational objective to encourage an awareness of agriculture and to promote improvements in the quality of life of people living in our community,” Black said.

He added that although he was saddened to announce cancellations again this year, Fergus was able to offer some events in 2020 and will again this year. Last year, the Fergus Agricultural Society released an educational and informative video series.

Black said this year Fergus has a number of events and projects in the early stages of planning.

“I don’t have too many details at the moment, but we are looking into offering some of the usual fair competitions virtually. We’re hoping to have more details out soon.”

Black continued, “We’re looking forward to the return of our traditional fair as much as the next person, but we’re excited for the opportunities this year can bring.”

Aberfoyle Agricultural Society vice president, Joanne Holt said Aberfoyle already has three events planned for this year.

“On June 6, we will be having a drive-through, contact-free barbecue dinner,” Holt said.

He noted people can still order tickets until June 1 by calling 519-823-2687.

Holt also said Aberfoyle is in the middle of putting together an agricultural awareness activity for this summer, with registration through the Aberfoyle Agricultural Society website.

“We have another event planned for [Sept. 11]. We will have more information on our website as it approaches, but people will be able to receive an activity book geared toward agricultural education. There will also be another drive-through dinner,” Holt said.

He also encourages people to visit the Ontario Fairs website, where people can find information on the over 200 annual fairs across Ontario.

In Erin, nothing is official yet, but there is still hope that some in-person events may take place.

Brenda Lothmann, president of the Erin Agricultural Society, said members are still working on a plan for what this October’s fair will look like.

“We’re trying to make a bigger decision at our June meeting, as to what things will look like this fall,” Lothmann said.

“We want to keep the fair spirit going, but it’s hard to know October right now. I’m hoping we will have a mix of in-person and virtual events.”

Lothmann said although things are uncertain right now, Erin wants to replicate the success of some of the events they were able to put on last year.

“Our fundraising efforts through our chicken barbecues were a huge success last year,” Lothmann said.

“Our silent auction was also moved online last year. This was great, and we will likely do this again.”

Lothmann also said the pandemic has made things even more efficient than they were before, in terms of online registration and the agricultural society using less cash out of necessity.

Katherine Clyne, president of the Harriston-Minto Agricultural Society, said the pandemic has made them think more creatively.

“It is difficult to change things to a virtual format, especially when many older people are involved with agriculture,” she said.

“Older folks are important to what we do, and we do not want to leave them behind.”

Clyne said Harriston-Minto has been planning more fundraisers leading up to the usual fair weekend. The society hasn’t formally announced anything yet, but is still planning on holding a raffle and maybe even some socially-distanced events like “Cow Pie Bingo.”

They also plan to deliver their roast beef and pork dinner in a take-out style format.