Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Pandemic threatens county fairs; most ineligible for aid

The pandemic has disrupted life in uncountable ways; county fairs are one. "Without the annual events, vendors, hotels and other small local businesses miss out on income they rely on. School-age children who spent the past year raising a pig or cow have no place to show or sell their work," April Simpson reports for Stateline. Many state fairs have also been canceled.

This year's cancellations or attendance limitations could put some county fairs' future in question. "Some fair operators fear for their fair's long-term survival, as many organizations are shut out of federal pandemic relief and receive little to no state money," Simpson reports.

Fairs generate about $4.7 billion annually, including money made on the fairgrounds for non-fair events such as RV shows, Simpson reports. Some fairs were able to get federal Paycheck Protection Program funds, but others were ineligible because they're quasi-governmental organizations or the wrong type of nonprofit. Only one-third of International Association of Fairs and Expositions members are eligible for federal aid. About 17 states provide some kind of financial aid to county fairs, often by subsidizing prizes for agricultural and other contests.

"A bill in the U.S. House, introduced by U.S. Rep. Josh Harder, a California Democrat, seeks $5 billion to create a new emergency grant program to help offset state and local fair losses," Simpson reports. "States would be able to apply for aid directly through the U.S. Department of Agriculture and then distribute it to fairs."

County fairs have been a linchpin of rural life. "Predating the founding of the United States, fairs began as markets designed to sell products. In the early 19th century, agricultural fairs became events for farm families to gather and share methods for improving crops and livestock," Simpson reports. "With educational and child labor policy changes, and other social shifts, fairs gradually became venues for agriculture education as more farmers in the 20th century went to college." Fairs also often serve as a platform for politicians to roll up their sleeves, glad-hand and give speeches.

In a nation with an increasing rural-urban cultural divide, county fairs help educate city dwellers about rural life. But more than that, "they’re celebrations of community where church dinners and stock car races provide opportunities to bump into friends and neighbors," Simpson reports. "Although the number of farmers has declined and fewer young people are choosing agriculture as a career, experts say fairs have become increasingly important."

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