FARM 21: Local groups persevere through 2020, plan for 2021
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
When the arrival of COVID-19 was deemed a worldwide pandemic in early 2020, few knew the enduring impact the virus would have on everything from people’s health and well-being to their financial status.
For local community organizations, the pandemic meant they couldn’t host their marquee events; in many cases, their biggest, and sometimes only revenue source of the year.
By not holding any events, however, some organizations incurred very few expenses, while for others, they still had to pay out honorariums and insurance costs, making their 2021 budgets hard to balance.
This is made even more difficult by the uncertainty surrounding large-scale gatherings this summer and fall. With vaccine distribution rolling out slower than many anticipated and guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) unsure about larger gatherings even after people have been vaccinated, events later this year could also be in jeopardy due to the pandemic.
Despite all of that uncertainty in the air, local organizations are proceeding as if they will be hosting events later this year, with many building contingency plans for truncated events if large-scale events are still deemed to be unsafe.
While 2020 served as a difficult year for some organizations, many found ways to reach out and connect with their patrons and supporters, which may serve as a trial run for adapted events in late 2021.
BRUSSELS FALL FAIR
The Brussels Agricultural Society, for example, considered a number of options before cancelling the Brussels Fall Fair in 2020. After all, however, the society was able to host a parade, a decorating contest and other small-scale events. Huron and Perth Counties were in a relatively safe position regarding the virus at the time and outdoor events like parades were deemed safe as long as people practised physical distancing.
Agricultural Society President Zoellyn Onn said she was very pleased with the events the organization was able to hold. They had discussed the event with Huron Perth Public Health and advised members on best practices in hosting an event during the pandemic and were able to move ahead safely.
Onn said the society didn’t make any money as a result of the events it did end up hosting, but there weren’t many costs incurred during a year in which the society didn’t host the fair. There were insurance costs, but aside from that, the society was able to remain in good financial shape heading into 2021.
In the months leading up to hosting the 2020 Brussels Fall Fair, Onn said there were many discussions about creative and innovative ways to try and host a scaled-down fair, but in the end, the membership decided against them.
One of the concepts was a virtual fair. However, other area agricultural societies ended up trying a virtual fair and didn’t see very high attendance, so the idea didn’t really take hold with many others in the area.
Onn and the membership then made the difficult decision to cancel the fair for 2020, knowing there was simply no way to move forward with the pandemic still in full swing.
As for the fall of 2021, the society is still hoping to host the Brussels Fall Fair, but Onn acknowledges that some plans may have to be altered and others may have to be eliminated entirely. And while there have not been many discussions about the 2021 Brussels Fall Fair just yet, the membership is moving ahead with the assumption that there will be a fair later this year.
The Brussels Fall Fair book has already been sent to be printed, she said, and if those competitions need to be moved to 2022, that decision will be made by public health authorities, she said.
Many of the society’s questions should be answered shortly, she said, or at least some helpful guidelines should begin to surface as spring fairs are held across Ontario in the coming months.
The Ontario Association of Agricultural Societies (OAAS) has been helpful in passing along guidelines and success stories to its member societies, Onn said, so she expects to learn a lot as a result of spring fair season.
Judy Sloan, president of the Huron Pioneer Thresher and Hobby Association, said it’s still too early for her membership to know too much about a potential 2021 reunion, but the association is moving ahead with the planning process, assuming there will be a reunion.
This year’s event will be the 60th anniversary event in the organization’s history, though the 59th was not held last year, which Sloan says is a milestone worth celebrating.
Last year, Sloan and the association had to cancel the reunion as a result of the pandemic. However, there were some silver linings to that decision.
Several members organized a tractor parade that began in Blyth, which was a nice reminder of the reunion, Sloan said. In addition, there was also a work bee to make progress on an antique cider press that was donated to the association years ago. It was held around the same time the membership would traditionally be setting up for the reunion, so she said it was nice to have that normalcy for those days, seeing friends and working together, even if the reunion wasn’t able to go ahead.
Moving ahead, Sloan said members are already discussing options for the 2021 reunion, focusing on outdoor events, working to be as safe as possible, while also marking the group’s anniversary.
Financially, the association is doing alright, Sloan said. She said the group couldn’t afford to host a “flop”, referring to a reunion event with low attendance, but because the 2020 reunion didn’t go ahead, few costs were incurred over the course of the year.
She said the organization did lose money in 2020 due to paying out for costs that were not frozen over the course of the year, like honorariums and insurance costs. The association also made its annual donations to several community organizations. While they were smaller than they would have been if the reunion had gone ahead, Sloan said the membership was happy to still be in a position to reinvest some money back into the community.
The association, Sloan said, was very careful with its money last year as a result of the pandemic. The membership was very grateful that the publishing of the annual Heritage Book went ahead though, which was not just a source of revenue for the group, but also a means to keep the reunion and the organization top of mind for many in the community and beyond.
As for this fall, the association is hoping to move forward with a reunion and including some special events to help mark its 60th reunion, including special musical performances.
ELEMENTARY SCHOOL FAIR
The Elementary School Fair, a staple of September in Belgrave every year, is another event that has had to roll with the punches.
When the pandemic first struck last spring, organizers reached out to students in an effort to engage them through the first lockdown, giving them activities to try and a number of categories to tackle in hopes they would then want to submit their work to the fair that September.
As the year went on, however, it was clear the fair wouldn’t be able to move forward and, after it was initially postponed, organizers cancelled it for the year.
Anne Procter, who was president of the Elementary School Fair Board for 2019 and 2020, said the organization received a tremendous amount of support from community groups, residents and sponsors when the decision was made, which has left the organization in a good position moving ahead into this year.
Many sponsors allowed the organization to keep grants and sponsorship funds, either turning them into donations or telling organizers that the funds could be used for 2021, instead of asking for them back. She said that while the organization did have insurance costs, there weren’t many other financial pressures without the fair moving forward.
This year’s fair will be the 100th in history, so plans are underway to have something a little special to accompany the fair: a catered meal that night and a variety show featuring local talent across many generations. A talent show had been part of the fair back in the 1920s, Procter said, so a callback to that time will be welcome for such an important milestone.
Procter said she is hoping it will be a large event with very strong attendance. However, like everyone else, there are still many questions about what life will look like in Ontario this September. She said the organization should know more in the next few months as further meetings are held.
HURON COUNTY PLOWING MATCH
Brian Wiersma, president of the Huron Plowmen’s Association, said his organization waited until about June to cancel the Huron County Plowing Match, which is held annually in August.
For him and the other board members, it was all about safety. The match routinely attracts people from all over the province and with Huron County’s COVID-19 case numbers in relatively good shape at the time, the organization didn’t want to risk welcoming potentially infected people to an area that had done so well to stop the spread. As a result, Wiersma and the organization felt they had a responsibility to not host the match and tempt fate in the middle of a pandemic.
Although the match wasn’t held in 2020, Wiersma said the organization is in good financial shape, with many people telling them to hold onto sponsorship dollars for the 2021 match.
The organizers are having meetings in the next few months regarding what the future will hold. Wiersma hopes the association can host a match in 2021, especially with the outdoor, distanced nature of a plowing match, though a site has not yet been chosen.
As more people get vaccinated, Wiersma said, and COVID-19 case numbers decrease, it will likely be a safer environment later this year, but the association has to be ready to adapt, if necessary. The match could just be plowers coming to the site, competing and then heading home, with no banquet or food booth and a virtual Queen of the Furrow and Princess competition. Time will tell, he said, but organizers have to be prepared for anything.
He says he’d love to host a traditional match, but the state of the world and direction from public health agencies will really have the final say.