Fairs, students adjust to pandemic rules

Issue Date: June 24, 2020
By Ching Lee
Pleasants Valley 4-H club member Justin Means, left, exhibits a pig during a competition at the Solano County fairgrounds as livestock judge Cameron Rocha of Newman speaks. The county held a virtual fair and an online junior livestock auction, but opened the fairgrounds for an on-site livestock show.
Photo/Ching Lee
Vacaville FFA student Zach Moore, left, and Rio Vista FFA student Stephanie Fuller show goats during a junior livestock competition at the Solano County fairgrounds.
Photo/Ching Lee

With many county fairs canceled due to COVID-19, 16-year-old Katie Hendrix of Solano County said she initially felt "defeated and beat down" because she had been raising her project lambs since January and was eager to show them at her fair's annual livestock competition.

"I felt like this was my year to win," the Dixon High School FFA student said.

Though getting a good market price for her lambs is half the goal, Hendrix said, it's the showmanship and judging competitions that really drive her, "because I want to show people how hard we worked" and how good the animals look.

She had a chance to do that last week at the Solano County Fair, which held a virtual fair but opened the fairgrounds to accommodate junior livestock competitions on site—albeit modified and abbreviated to allow for social distancing and limited gatherings, said Mike Ioakimedes, executive director and CEO of the Solano County Fairgrounds.

"I think we may be the first one to be able to pull it off," said Debbie Egidio, the fair's marketing manager.

As with many other fairs, Solano County opted for an online junior livestock auction, because live ones typically draw too big a crowd, Ioakimedes said. But the county approved a limited livestock show, open only to exhibitors and their immediate families, with no outside spectators.

Other fairs such as Yuba-Sutter have approved similar plans. Dave Dillabo, CEO of the Yuba-Sutter Fairgrounds, said the fair went through "a lot of hoops" to offer youth an online auction and on-site competition in August, but noted there will be "lots of different procedures in place" to promote safety.

Some canceled fairs, such as in Glenn County, did not provide junior livestock exhibitors alternative marketing avenues, so community members stepped in to purchase student animals and make contributions, said Janice Lohse, an FFA teacher at Hamilton High School in Glenn County. Most of her students sold their animals to private buyers, she said, and others marketed via an online auction organized by people in the community. She noted all her students not only recouped their project costs, but made money.

"I think most of the kids came out with a good experience," Lohse said. "Yes, they missed the show. Yes, they missed the fair, but all in all, our kids were happy that they did not lose money. I believe it taught them a real-life agriculture experience: There are ups and downs in the industry."

One of Lohse's students, George Jongsma, who will be a junior next year, did not participate in the online auction because he said his end goal remained to exhibit his pigs—a $7,000 investment on which he worked 20 hours a week to prepare. He will finally be able to show them this week in Reno.

Even though he lost money on his projects because he couldn't sell them at the fairs he wanted, Jongsma said he plans to show again next year. Other students may be reluctant to take the risk, he said.

"A lot of them, it was their first time showing at the fair and I think a lot of them were hurt that they couldn't do that, for all the time they put in," he said.

The county fairs themselves suffer from lost revenue. Some may not be able to return from impacts of the pandemic, fair managers and fair board members said. The California Fairs Alliance estimates the cost of canceled events and fair closures at $200 million.

Dillabo said 35% to 40% of the Yuba-Sutter fairgrounds budget comes from facility rentals for events. With 95% of its revenue gone so far, he said the fairgrounds have made "serious operational changes" to reduce costs, including turning off lights, air conditioning and refrigerators.

"It's kind of just hold on tight and hopefully we survive this," Dillabo said.

Patrick Eidman, CEO of the Nevada County Fairgrounds, described the loss of rentals as "catastrophic" for this year's cash flow, originally projected at about $2.7 million. The fairgrounds have had zero income since March and "would be lucky to hit 10%" of projected revenue. Eidman said he's had to "cut costs at every opportunity."

Still, he said he and his staff have a plan in place and he's "guardedly optimistic" they'll be able to get by this year, just as other fairs have responded creatively to the crisis. Additional emergency funding from the state or from the next federal stimulus bill would help, he added.

Ray Souza, a Stanislaus County Fair board director, said fairgrounds also serve as staging areas for natural disasters and emergencies such as wildfires and floods, and have been used to house animals and people during evacuations. More recently, fairgrounds have become testing sites for COVID-19. Fair managers noted fairgrounds often are not compensated for many of those uses.

With the gradual reopening of the economy, Ioakimedes said there will be more opportunity for fairgrounds to begin to reopen and "mirror what's happening in the rest of the business or retail world."

Souza said the Stanislaus County fairgrounds were used recently for a police dog-training event that brought in "a little bit of money," and some buildings are being rented as storage, though revenue from these activities is "nothing that's going to get us over the hump."

Rancher Jim Vietheer, who serves on the Sacramento County Fair junior livestock committee, said he thinks many of the virtual livestock sales "have been better than anybody expected" and students will be OK financially because of community support. But he said students will miss the experience of being at the fair.

One bright spot Sacramento County farmer Ken Mitchell said he observed from the online auctions is that they've brought in different clientele—people who previously didn't know they could buy fair animals. Now that fairs have successfully held online auctions, he said, maybe they could continue using these platforms for junior livestock.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




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