Alberta farm show moves under new management

Farmfair International is expected to be held Nov. 10-14 this year after being cancelled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. | File photo

Farmfair International will now be run by the City of Edmonton’s tourism agency after the 142-year-old Northlands makes the decision to dissolve

An agricultural society that is older than Alberta will be shutting down following several years of financial challenges exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Northlands has reached a tentative agreement with Explore Edmonton, which will take over the management of the K-Days exhibition and the Farmfair International livestock and agricultural show.

A formal transition will take place July 5, with Northlands winding down after 142 years.

Explore Edmonton, the city arm’s-length events and tourism corporation, will have a mandate to reimagine events such as Farmfair, said interim chief executive officer Maggie Davison at a recent news conference. Although she was excited about what she called a new chapter, she added it was bittersweet.

Some of Western Canada’s first settlers founded what is now known as Northlands in 1879, predating the creation of Alberta in 1905. The not-for-profit organization had lately been struggling to stay afloat, said Tim Carson, chief executive officer of the Alberta Association of Agricultural Societies.

Despite the cancellation of K-Days for the second year in a row, Farmfair will be held Nov. 10-14, said Arlindo Gomes, vice-president of business development and venues management at Explore Edmonton.

A new director is being recruited for Farmfair “to provide strategic expertise into both the short and long-term development of existing and new agricultural events,” said a job posting.

They could include a new rodeo in September, said Gomes.

Meanwhile, the Calgary Stampede plans to hold what it has called “the Safest and Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth” July 9-18 for the first time since 2019.

“Our goal is to somehow reflect as much of what would be the iconic events of the Calgary Stampede as we possibly can safely… whether that’s mini doughnuts or the heavy horse pull and give people still that experience,” said interim chief executive officer Dana Peers.

Although the Rangeland Derby chuckwagon races will not be held this year, other rodeo events will be offered each afternoon, he said.

A federal exemption from international quarantine rules, such as standard testing and hotel isolation, has been granted to professional rodeo participants so they can attend. However, they must follow a mitigation plan and modified quarantine to be eligible.

Stampede officials expect to ensure the safety of patrons through potential measures such as pre-purchased park entry to minimize crowds at the gates. About 1.28 million people attended in 2019.

The Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association’s Strategic COVID-19 pandemic committee recently sent a letter warning Alberta Premier Jason Kenney to cancel major summer events or postpone them until this fall.

“In our opinion, it is unsafe to hold a major event such as the Calgary Stampede, which may draw attendees and participants from multiple provinces and countries before at least 70 percent of eligible Albertans have been fully vaccinated with two doses,” the committee wrote.

Speaking in general about fairs and exhibitions, Carson said a significant number of potential patrons will likely be apprehensive about attending such events.

It is vital to proceed carefully to build “consumer confidence to ensure that we’re not rushing or planning so quickly that we plan ourselves into failure.”

Peers said as a not-for-profit organization, the Calgary Stampede is not allowed to keep large cash reserves.

Calgary’s city council recently approved several amendments that included certain credit facilities, which are a type of financing, paving the way for a $10-million loan for the Calgary Stampede from an unnamed lender.

“I would say that not unlike so many in our community, (we have) certainly had challenges due to the pandemic,” said Peers. “And so we continue to manage expenses as prudent, and continue to work on our plans to make sure that 2021 is more or less a bridge year for us to get to 2022.”

The cancellation of the Stampede and other events in 2020 resulted in a loss of $26.5 million, said a report presented to city officials. A loss of $11.7 million is expected this year, it said.

Although Peers couldn’t speak about the situation at Northlands, “what I can tell you is that the Calgary Stampede has always been managed extremely well… and that we’ll continue to make sure that this organization is sustainable well into the future.”

However, Carson said the news that such a prominent Edmonton institution as Northlands is shutting down after 142 years has “added a level of complexity to the conversation.”

The Alberta Association of Agricultural Societies has sought $10 million in provincial funding since last year to help 283 primary societies, along with $8 million for seven regional societies ranging from Grande Prairie and Lloydminster to Lethbridge, he said.

It joins a request from the Canadian Association of Fairs and Exhibitions for $74 million from the federal government, said Carson. “But so far, the answer has either been no or no answer at all.”

The events held by agricultural societies are vital to Albertans, especially in rural areas, he said.

“In many cases, like I said, whether it’s the hockey rink, the curling rink, or their riding arena or the rodeo grounds, this is where the community comes together… and in order for us to be as successful as we can as a province, we need to ensure that these organizations are viable.”

However, the provincial government has provided pandemic funding that included $17 million to stabilize non-profit organizations that host things such as rodeos and sports organizations, Amanda LeBlanc, press secretary for Alberta Culture, Multiculturalism and Status of Women, said in an email.

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