Can We Save Our Local Fairs?

Written By: Tawny Tesconi, Executive Director
Published: July 1, 2020

As the days grow longer and warmer, if you’re like me, you are pining away from not being able to make your traditional visit to our local fairs and festivals this summer. As a fair junkie, I usually attend at least fifteen fairs a year. There have been a few mornings when, just after waking, I ponder what fair I will be experiencing soon, only to get railroaded by reality. Oh yeah, we’re on lockdown and have to social distance – there are no fairs to attend this year.

Fairs and Farm Bureau have had a symbiotic relationship that has been mutually beneficial for over a century.  We have common stakeholders, trade information and resources, and most importantly, share a passion for agriculture. Sadly, this relationship is threatened – not because of the partners involved, but because of politics.

It is hard to pinpoint the first American fair since the title is claimed by many jurisdictions, but it is safe to say that fairs have been a part of our Country’s culture for at least 200 years. In the first century of livestock shows and fairs, rarely was there an established location for the event to take place. Instead, there was a stiff competition between farmers to have the honor of hosting the annual fair on their farms and often the gathering served people from several townships, parishes, or counties. The fair was hosted in one community for one year and another place the next. 

Looking back, the mission of a county or regional fair was more akin to a trade show than the actual community event we experience today.  After all, at the beginning of the 20th century, 40 percent of the total U.S. population lived on farms and 60 percent lived in rural areas. The purpose of fairs in those early years was for producers to show off their prize corn, or market-ready hogs to other producers to create uber bloodlines and seed stock. Fairgoers were more brethren than consumers but given the number of people closely connected to farming in those days, a city slicker would have been hard to find at a rural America fair. The fair industry’s mission was important – its primary focus was to communicate to the masses about the latest accomplishments in agriculture with the masses being folks from the agriculture community.  

The 20th-century fairs had an important role in the success of the agriculture industry, but today’s fairs – the fairs of the 21st century have a more critical role in the future of agriculture than their predecessors. Today’s fairs serve a different mass of Americans – they educate the urban consumer about the food they eat, the clothing they wear, and the working lands they enjoy. 

Fast forward through the industrial revolution, modernization efforts, transportation breakthroughs, and ingenuity. Now, around 1.3% of the employed US population is made up of farmers and ranchers – and these farmers and ranchers are the primary suppliers of food for a world population of almost 8 billion people. By comparison, in 1900 the world population was 1.6 billion people. Talk about efficiency!

With the decline of folks directly connected to agriculture came an ignorance of farming by many Americans. And, with every generation, more Americans are farther removed from our industry. We experience it every day with fake news, NIMBYism, and misplaced blame on farming for environmental issues.

Fairs are crucial to the success of agriculture, particularly in consumer outreach and we are at a tipping point. We are going to lose this lifeline to the urban audience. Already we are seeing layoffs at local fairs, shuttering of fair facilities, and headlines that suggest that over half the fairs in California will not survive this Pandemic. History may suggest that COVID-19 – a microscopic virus brought to our soil from a foreign land was the culprit that took down America’s fair network. I disagree. If we lose our fairs it will be our nation’s leaders at all levels of the government ignoring the California fair industry and having disregard for the fair industry’s future.  

We all appreciate fairs for what they do during the five days, fourteen days, or maybe even a month that we fondly call “fair time”. But fair facilities are so much more. California fairs employ 30,000 people, are the catalyst for nonprofit fundraising that realizes $35 million per year which goes back into local communities, and through the diverse activities that take place at a Fair, over $200 million in tax revenue feeds local and state governmental coffers.

Locally, where would we be without our fairs? All three fair sites in Cloverdale, Santa Rosa, and Petaluma have had a primary role of providing human and animal shelter and comfort during the various wildfires, floods, and heatwaves experienced by our communities. Fair activities such as the World’s Ugliest Dog Contest, the World Champion Grape Stomp, and even the early Cannabis shows have called international attention to our beautiful county.

Already we are seeing layoffs at the Sonoma County Fair. Our federal, state, and local legislatures are discussing, but have taken little action, on downsizing or eliminating other public programs. In fact, they have continued to put public monies into keeping beaches and parks operating. Where is the support for our fairgrounds? Will there be a noticeable misstep in the ability to respond to a potential summertime natural disaster if our fairgrounds have been left to mothball because of a staffing shortage? 

I fear with all levels of the government bleeding financially, fairground facilities will be looked at as potential commodities to be sold off to dam up the leaking sieve holding public funds. This is not the answer and will only lead to hard times for nonprofits, community celebrations, emergency response, and most importantly, agriculture. 

Should alternative governance structures be explored? Would it be possible to have collaborative management models that allow the talented folks working at one fair to assist another neighboring fair? Could fairs be more self-sufficient and Pandemic-resilient if capital improvement funding were provided or private partnerships established that would allow for a diversification of land uses? None of these concepts are unachievable and I am sure there are a dozen other ideas of how we can maintain the California network of fairs.

Decision-makers, elected officials, fair boards, government staffers – please take a pause and allow the fairs and their hard-working staff to reimagine and retool our fair industry. After all, fairs have been around for over 200 years…COVID-19 and the Pandemic are in their infancy. When California agriculture loses its fairs, the portal to educate and nurture support from that 98% plus of Americans who know little about farming and ranching will be closed.

Over the last few weeks, we have been asking our members via eblasts to reach out and demonstrate to our elected officials that Fairs are vital to agriculture. I hope you join the crusade and get others to do so as well. The Voice of Agriculture needs to be heard – loudly.

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