Agricultural fairs forced to postpone, go online in face of COVID-19

Agricultural fairs forced to postpone, go online in face of COVID-19
CALEDONIA—These images of the 2019 Caledonia Fair won’t be repeated in 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions. —Haldimand Press photos by Sheila Phibbs.

By Sheila Phibbs

The Haldimand Press Staff

As the days of summer quickly wind down and the change of the seasons begins, there is something that will be missing this year … the sights, sounds, and smells of the annual fall fairs.

The cancellation of fairs and exhibitions is a disappointment that has been felt across country, especially in the rural communities where the annual fair is a part of the cultural fibre. Some Ontario fairs are older than confederation and are a major part of the collective memory and character of their communities.

Beyond the emotional attachment to these annual events, these cancellations have a substantial economic impact. According to the Canadian Association of Fairs and Exhibitions (CAFE) website, fairs and exhibitions contribute $2.9 billion annually to the Canadian economy, particularly in rural areas. In addition, for every dollar earned by these organizations, $4.54 is put back into the local community.

At the local level, the Dunnville Fair is organized by the Dunnville Agricultural Society and would have taken place for the 26th year on the second weekend of August if not for the pandemic.

Margaret Clark, Dunnville Agricultural Society President, says, “The community and exhibitors especially missed the fair. It’s been an interesting year and very difficult for fairs.”

Next up, the first weekend of October would be marking the 148th edition of the Caledonia Fair, which is organized by the Caledonia Agricultural Society. The fair normally welcomes approximately 30,000 visitors over four days. Ian Thompson, Fair Manager, says, “Cancellation has a significant impact on our ag society. We have been a family tradition for people for so many years that we are all very sad not to see all of the familiar faces this fall.”

Allan Hedley, President of the Caledonia Agricultural Society, shares that sentiment, stating, “The fair is something that the community looks forward to every year. It is a chance for talents and labours of love from the kitchens, workshops, fields, and barns to be showcased. All generations enjoy going to the fair as a place to socialize, have some fun, and enjoy a treat or two. Everyone has memories of the Caledonia Fair.”

The cancellation of 2020 events is not only a loss of tradition, but a financial concern for agricultural societies, fair vendors, and exhibitors.

The Dunnville Fair decided not to hold a quilt raffle this year which has affected fundraising. Clark explains that this was due in part to the cancellation of the Lions Home Show and the Mudcat Festival, which were always prime opportunities to sell tickets.

They were able to modify their annual plant sale and Clark says, “We advertised and did pre-orders and delivered. It was as good as other years.”

According to Hedley, “The opportunity lost for the ag society and several community organizations to raise funds for the year will be significant. The ag society has expenses and a mortgage.”

The Caledonia Agricultural Society is a registered charity and is grateful for the support of the community. As a year-round facility, the impact of the closure of the Riverside Exhibition Centre and the surrounding fairgrounds has been felt since the state of emergency was declared.

Annually, there are 75,000 visitors to the fairgrounds for various events. All community events and fundraisers that would normally have happened have not taken place. As well, the usually accessible green space on the fairgrounds cannot be enjoyed by the community at this time.

Shown is a Haldimand Press archive photo from the 2019 Dunnville Fair.

Reflecting on how the year has unfolded, Clark, who is also a past-president of the Ontario Association of Agricultural Societies (OAAS), says, “The whole community of Dunnville has missed the fair, Mudcat Festival, youth tournaments, and more.”

She notes that activity on the Dunnville Fair Facebook page was especially busy at fair time. She adds, “The community has been very supportive and calling to see how we are doing. That is very much appreciated and we’ll see you in some way or another at the 2021 fair.”

Despite not being able to attend the Caledonia Fair this year, it may still be possible to enjoy certain aspects of the fair. Volunteers are working on a virtual fair to be enjoyed online.

Thompson explains, “We will hold some online competitions, show some behind the scene videos, and we are also hoping to host a Fair-Food drive-thru event on October 3.”

The popular 50-50 raffle and the quilt raffle, featuring a quilt donated by the Grand River Quilters Guild, are also being held. It won’t be quite the same as the traditional fair, but fun, new memories are sure to be made.

Families can then begin to look forward to 2021 when the sights, sounds, and smells of the annual fall fairs should fill the air once again.

For more information on fairs in Ontario visit: ontarioagsocieties.ca.

Next year, the Dunnville Fair will be August 7 to 8, 2021 and the Caledonia Fair will be September 20 to October 3, 2021.

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