All’s fair: Annual rural events set to swing into action

country fair

There are some 213 rural fairs registered with the Ontario Association of Agricultural Societies (OAAS) and all of them – 100 per cent – intend to stage full live shows in 2022 after knuckling under to COVID-19 for the past two years.

OAAS general manager Vince Brennan has heard the same message from all members, that they’re anxious to get back in the saddle. This includes several fair boards across Eastern Ontario, five of which are located within Ottawa’s rural reaches: Navan, Richmond, Metcalfe, Carp and the Capital Fair.

Among other popular fairs in the region are Renfrew, Perth, Merrickville, Lombardy, Russell, Spencerville, South Mountain, Chesterville, Vankleek Hill and Canada’s oldest farm fair held for 210 years at Williamstown, early headquarters of the North West Company of explorers and fur traders.

Like the other fairs, Williamstown promotes agriculture, horticulture, livestock competitions, home crafts, local entertainment and traditions older than Canada. Several other area fairs are well past the 150-year mark.

Not only is return of the fairs a good thing socially and culturally, it’s a huge economic boost in many locations that could use one. In 2019, the last regular season pre-COVID, Brennan said more than 3.4 million people visited Ontario fairs, generating gate receipts of $24.4 million.

Brennan says for every dollar received by agricultural societies, $4.54 was injected into the local economy. Society members and associated events have a total economic impact of up to $700 million.

Some full- and part-time jobs are provided by societies. In addition, they traditionally spend money locally for supplies, building projects, entertainment and publicity.

One benefit enjoyed by the fair boards is that they operate almost entirely with volunteer labour.  In 2019, Brennan says, fair volunteers provided 1.4 million hours of service. 

While OAAS members struggled to retain a profile during the pandemic through virtual presentations and limited live events, it was nothing like the real thing, Brennan states, adding that some online components will be retained.

While societies had limited expenses in 2020-21 because they didn’t mount fairs, they also had little revenues. Helping them with seed money is the Central Canada Exhibition Association fund, derived from $4 million received from the sale of a site in rural Ottawa south that was once envisioned as the new home of the Ex.

It wasn’t to be. After the Ex was booted from Lansdowne Park in 2010 for redevelopment, it was unable to regroup and the board of directors disbanded five years later. Trustees decided when the 140-acre alternate location finally sold that proceeds would be distributed among fairs and other agricultural causes.

Among beneficiaries are the OAAS, specific fairs and a $200,000 scholarship fund for youth who’ve been actively involved in their home societies. For weeks now, trustees and former directors have been dropping off cheques to designated recipients like a team of roving Santa Clauses.

With regular patrons having lost the live fair habit during the pandemic, organizers are looking at creative ways of bringing them back. In Spencerville, which went big virtually in 2020-21, the 167th edition Sept. 8 to 11 will feature former favourites such as the Barn of Learning, midway and Saturday parade, as well as top-drawer musical entertainment.

More than the tractor and truck pulls, the animals, the baby and pet contests, or even the beer tent, the leading attraction at any fair is the demolition derby, which features reinforced, beater cars ramming each other down to the last man – or woman – standing. 

The 156th Lombardy Fair July 29 to 31 will hold the usual demo derby but is adding a first-time Monster Truck Show, which cost $20,000 to book. In addition, said fair board director John Joynt, there’ll be an outlay for junker cars for the monsters to roll over as well as extra bleacher seating.

Another new event will be professional axe-throwing as the fair board goes all out to sharpen the appetites of regulars and newcomers.

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