COVID hits bottom line for ag societies

The Lloydminster Agricultural Exhibition Association held 902 events in 2019.

Since mid-March, none.

The Olds Regional Exhibition, normally a hive of activity especially in summer, cancelled all its events from mid-March through to Sept. 30.

There’s a long list of “COVID cancellations,” the casualties of restrictions imposed to protect human health during the pandemic.

Sharing in those cancellations are hundreds of other agricultural societies across Canada, most of them smaller than Lloydminster and Olds, that have had to forgo spaghetti dinners, fowl suppers, trade shows, weddings, funerals and all manner of community events they would normally organize or host.

Without the revenue from events, many of those societies face financial trouble — so much trouble that the Canadian Association of Fairs and Exhibitions (CAFE) is asking the federal government for $49 million to save the nation’s 733 smaller ag societies, fairs and exhibitions and another $25 million for the 10 largest exhibitions across Canada. Those amounts would carry them through May 2021, CAFE said.

“We are such cultural institutions and such integral parts of the community and the fact that these organizations are at risk is terrible, especially when some are older than Canada itself. Actually, many are. We don’t want to lose that,” said CAFE executive director Christina Franc.

“When we’re talking about funding for fairs and exhibitions, we’re not just talking about that event. We’re talking about the organization behind that event and the events they run all year round and how they support the local communities.”

CAFE has approached the federal heritage, tourism, economic development and agriculture departments to explain the problem but “each has told us we should speak to another department,” it wrote in a letter to federal ministers.

The history and the spectrum of events organized and hosted by agricultural societies may be working to their detriment in terms of politicians’ understanding, said Jenelle Saskiw, general manager of the Lloydminster agricultural exhibition.

“I think that there’s a little bit of a misconception that ag societies hold their one event a year and that’s basically all we do. We host a cattle show or a rodeo or a fair. “We’re just so much more than that rural country fair.”

Tracy Gardner of the Olds exhibition agreed with that assessment, noting her facility and those of other agricultural societies, whether curling rinks or rodeo grounds, are gathering places for the community and are utilized year round.

“We are a place where 4-H knows that they have an affordable place to come and celebrate youth development. We’re a place where our local artisans and primary producers can come sell their wares at farmers markets,” said Gardner.

“We’re a place where sure, there might be some large scale weddings and funeral celebrations. It’s also a place where there’s retail business done with RV and automobile and farm implement dealer shows. And everything in between.”

Tim Carson, executive director of the Alberta Association of Agricultural Societies, said smaller societies might fare better in pandemic times than will larger operations that own and operate buildings and thus have higher overhead costs.

That is the case for Saskiw in Lloydminster.

“We do need bridge funding. My fixed costs are about $125,000 a month, and that is strictly wages, benefits, our mortgage, bank payments, phone bills, power bills, water bills…. We’ve trimmed all the fat. There’s no place else that we can go from here.

“Right now I’m looking at probably only six months of life left in our facility and we’ve been in operation for 113 years. Without any type of bridge funding, a lot of us are not going to have a choice but to close our doors and unfortunately I don’t know what will happen to allow us to ever reopen again.”

The federal emergency wage subsidy helped some of the larger societies retain core staff but most societies don’t qualify because they are run by volunteers. As non-profit operations, they also don’t qualify for several other business-related programs.

“A lot of the programs are based on a reduction in revenue on a specific timeline and most of our groups were not necessarily earning the bulk of their revenue prior to COVID,” said Carson.

Temporary deferrals of some utility payments were a help, said Saskiw, but payments will soon come due.

It’s particularly frustrating because Saskatchewan’s reopening plans after the COVID-shutdown continue to restrict facilities like the exhibition to gatherings of 30 people or fewer. In contrast, stores, casinos and restaurants are allowed to operate.

“We have basically been left out of the reopening plans,” she said.

“If we can work with the government to establish new protocols on reopening and allow us to have even 200 or 300 people … our main facility is large enough. We’re licensed to hold 1,200 people within our venue. I feel very confident that I can bring in 200 people and have the proper safety protocols in place to run a very safe event.”

Saskiw said there is community support to allow use of the facility but that’s going to require partnership with the government on health protocols.

“It’s a little hard for us to see the restaurant across the street that has 50 or 100 people in it, but yet we’re only allowed 30 people at one time within our building even though we have way more space.”

At Olds, Gardner said there has been little guidance regarding Alberta health protocols for ag societies and exhibitions. In the early days of the pandemic, events were limited to fewer than 50 people and it was thought that restriction would extend throughout the summer.

Olds thus cancelled all its events with the exception of farmers markets, which were deemed essential. When health recommendations changed it was too late to reorganize. Staff members were laid off, making it difficult to offer necessary services even for third-party rentals.

“Now we have an immediate focus to make sure that our fall livestock schedule is impacted the least. We are committed, at least at this point, in making sure that our venue will be a safe and reliable gathering place for livestock sales. It’s such an important part of our agriculture commerce.”

Glen Duck, executive director of the Saskatchewan Association of Agricultural Societies and Exhibitions, said he is counting on the creativity of those involved in the province’s 58 agricultural societies to withstand the closures and pressures of COVID-19.

“Hopefully we can weather this thing,” he said.

“Our ag societies are very, very creative and they’ll do whatever they can to run an event and try and get things going for the community. That’s what they do,” said Duck.

However, he said he worries that some will not survive current conditions and that will also harm the communities they serve in terms of economics, culture, social interaction and recreational pursuits.

Carson said the social support that agricultural societies provide often goes unnoticed or at least unremarked.

“I’ve often used that local spaghetti dinner (example) that industry and government sort of takes for granted, sort of shrugs off. But farming is a stressful occupation and the opportunity to bring people together over a meal just to talk and things like that, does tremendous good for individuals and community,” he said.

“(They have) the opportunity to talk with their peers and realize they’re not alone in things… there’s less stress, less physical manifestations of stress, less family violence, all of those things that we can’t quantify but without that outlet there’s tremendous consequences.”

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