Ag fair reps speak to impact of declining state support, particularly amid pandemic

  • Deerfield resident Charles Clark with his David Bradley walk-behind tractor collection at the Franklin County Fair in Greenfield in September. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Billy Hubler, an American Boer goat judge from Oklahoma, examines goats at the Franklin County Fair in Greenfield in September. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • The Roundhouse, filled with juried crafts and food, at the Franklin County Fair in Greenfield in September. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 10/13/2021 5:31:05 PM

With declining income and increased expenses, agricultural fairs across the state are feeling the impact of declining state support, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Most of our fairs teach agriculture,” said Frank Di Luna, president of the Massachusetts Agricultural Fair Association, emphasizing the importance of maintaining and supporting the continuation of such fairs. “The further and further we become away from the farm — and we’re probably four generations from the farm — the more (people) don’t know what agriculture is.”

Representatives from the Massachusetts Agricultural Fair Association met virtually Wednesday morning with state officials for a briefing on the impact that declining state support and the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the financial stability and continued existence of the 40 Massachusetts agricultural fairs.

The meeting was moderated by state Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland, who explained there are five types of fairs: major fairs, community fairs, youth fairs, livestock fairs and Grange fairs.

“I’m extremely lucky to have a high number of agricultural fairs in my district,” she said.

Jessica O’Neill, president of the Heath Agricultural Society, said in the wake of the pandemic, agricultural fairs like the Heath Fair are more important than ever before.

“The importance of agricultural fairs is perhaps best expressed through its very name — agriculture,” she said. “Fairs help to build the future of farming in Massachusetts.”

Beyond the agricultural goal of the fairs, O’Neill noted that they also act as an economic engine to local nonprofits as a fundraising venue.

“Were it not for the Heath Fair, these organizations would not have the opportunity to raise these necessary dollars from a crowd of about 5,000 over a weekend,” she said.

Kenneth Howes, a vice president on the Cummington Fair board of directors, said that because of the cancellation of the fair in 2020, followed by added health safety expenses such as Plexiglas and hand sanitizer in 2021, the fair has suffered financially.

“The fair pays about $30,000 in premiums that used to be financed through the state, which would be appreciated if it ever happens (again),” he said. “We had a financial loss of … $52,000 in 2020.”

Without support previously provided by the state, Howes said the Cummington Fair is struggling to meet infrastructure challenges, noting the fairgrounds has at least one old, “dilapidated” building in need of repair.

One such program that provided financial support to fairs for infrastructure improvements was the Agricultural Fairs Improvement Program, which was established in 2007 and discontinued two years later, according to a briefing memo from the Massachusetts Agricultural Fair Association.

Additionally, in 2014 the State Assistance for Fair Premiums was repealed, according to the memo.

Although he didn’t have an opportunity to speak Wednesday morning, Mike Nelson, president of the Franklin County Agricultural Society that puts on the Franklin County Fair in Greenfield, said in an interview following the briefing that he’s spoken several times with Blais about potential funding sources for projects at the fairgrounds.

“One area she was optimistic about was tapping into the ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funds, once they start becoming available,” Nelson said. “I know she’s been advocating tirelessly for funding for our agricultural fair, but also agricultural fairs across the commonwealth. She really sees the value of the fairs both as an economic incubator of the community, as well as a major tourism attraction.”

Nelson said that had he spoken as part of the briefing, he would have advocated for three major ongoing and upcoming projects at the fairgrounds: the erosion remediation project, the repaving project slated to start this spring, and — if grant funding is awarded — upgrading the electrical system.

“When all is said and done, between those three projects, we’re looking at a $210,000 max that we need to come up with,” he said. “Any funding from the state Legislature will make a significant impact in the preservation of the fairgrounds.”

Echoing many of the comments made by his peers across the state, Nelson said he believes the biggest challenge lies in educating state representatives in the eastern part of the state.

“Certainly, state reps who are located in the Boston area are not quite so familiar with dairy farming as we are out here,” he said. “So I certainly applaud all the efforts Rep. Blais has made … to try to educate her colleagues on the importance of these sorts of projects.”

Several people who spoke Wednesday morning described fairs not only as a training ground for young farmers, but an opportunity for the community to gather and celebrate the local harvest.

“The pandemic was not the first disruption we’ve seen in fairs in the last 100 years,” said Brad Mitchell, executive director of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau, referencing periods post-World War I and World War II. “We came together as a society and as a government to support them, and I’m hoping we can do it again now. They’re a fabric of our … society as a whole.”

Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources Commissioner John Lebeaux remarked on the infrastructure and operational expenses plaguing the fairs.

“I think we need to take into account that there probably isn’t one single perfect solution,” he said. “There’s a lot to talk about. I’m glad this conversation is getting organized.”

Reporter Mary Byrne can be reached at mbyrne@recorder.com or 413-930-4429. Twitter: @MaryEByrne


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