Several rural fairgrounds in Minnesota and Wisconsin received much needed support this year. The AgStar Fund for Rural America, the corporate giving program of AgStar Financial Services, has awarded 23 county fairs grants of up to $3,000 to help improve agricultural buildings on their fairgrounds.
The mission of the program is to support rural areas and county fair organizations in maintaining or upgrading fairground livestock buildings, 4-H buildings or livestock judging arenas. Every county fair organization in AgStar's 69-county service area is eligible to apply for a grant, which are dispersed on a three-year cycle - fair organizations are eligible every three years.
According to Melanie Olson, Fund & Marketing Specialist, AgStar Financial Services, the grants are unique among the credit unions in the Farm Credit System, which was establishedby Congress in 1916, in that the funds go directly to fairground facility upkeeps. "Our grants are specially for the buildings. We get a lot positive feedback from fairgrounds, because there are few programs like this."
"County fairgrounds get a lot of use in a short amount of time each year," said John Monson, chairman of the AgStar Fund's board of trustees. "When you consider the amount of people visiting and the variety of activities that happen there, it's no surprise county fair buildings need attention on a regular basis. We're happy to partner with local organizations to ensure their facilities are able to host those who look forward to the fair each year."
While supplement support for facility upkeeps helps fairs sustain programming, AgStar's mission is to help buildings that "are specifically for livestock, and can range from new construction to new additions and renovations," said Olson. "The facilities help 4-H and FFA programs, the beginning farmers."
Since its inception in 2001, the AgStar Fund has donated more than $6 million to organizations in communities that work to improve the future of rural America. The fair grant program was founded in 2007, although it became annual in 2010 and a few years ago, it was increased from $2,500 to $3,000. While the amount of $3,000 may seem modest, most regional fairs are struggling for any kind of support.
Fairs, especially at the local level, rely on volunteer work and in-kind donations. Governmental support - especially for capital improvements - has long been reduced or eradicated in Minnesota and Wisconsin. "We make sure that the dollars are used wisely and prioritized," said Olson. "Often it used for qualified electricians and workers, which they cannot get through volunteers or in-kind donations. Most of the fairs get very little support for capital improvements, which they are in desperate need of. The commitment to agriculture from these fairs is impressive, and they do have a wish-list for the facilities."
According to Rusty Volk, CFE, Executive Director of the Northern Wisconsin State Fair Association INC. in Chippewa Falls, calls the AgStar funding for the fair "a catalyst for us to help us funding for various programs for our facilities."
Volk pointed out that while some state and local support is available, many of those needed dollars must be used for the "promotion of agriculture" and are generally only used to supplement premiums, i.e., awards given out for 4-H and FFA contests. "County and state funding is limited and the facilities always suffer," said Volk. He has been in in his present position with the Northern Wisconsin State Fair for eight years and periodic AgStar grants were instrumental in much needed upgrades for a hog barn, new pens and replacing wooden panels to galvanized metal panels. "We are moving towards open barn areas in the future, and replacing the wooden panels is our first step. The grants helped us to begin the process. In the meantime, our sheep and llama exhibitors love the new panels. We can configure them in multiple ways, which helps to intermix our exhibitors."
It's an ambitious program for a growing fair, but Volk emphasizes that the AgStar grant gives the fair organization prestige and credibility, which in turns attracts additional funding. "The AgStar grant is a catalyst for other funding," said Volk. "It generates other funds that help us complete the programs we can start with the AgStar grants."
He explained that the AgStar grant "opens the door to other assistance," which can come from a variety of sources, such as foundations, agriculture corporations and community donors."
The 23 Minnesota and Wisconsin organizations receiving grants this year also included funding for the Itasca County Agricultural Association to purchase benches for the horse arena and livestock areas.
The Itasca County Fairgrounds in Grand Rapids, Minn., has also been a beneficiary of AgStar fair grants, which in recent years included improvements to horse and show arenas as well as stalling in cattle barns, including additional wash stalls, new wet mats and other upgrades.
As Brian Carlson, Vice-President of the Itasca County Agriculture Association, describes it, equestrian and other livestock events were on the wane, "nobody was showing," he said. But by the late 1980s, donations made it possible to build some facilities for horses, establishing this fair as a leading equestrian destination in the state.
The AgStar grants have enabled the fair to sustain this reputation into the 21st century. "It's been a great impetus because have been able to provide a building for the horses. We've been able to fix up the arenas, put in better soil, have washing areas."
Not only has the upgrades enabled equestrian events to be a mainstay attraction at the annual Itasca County Fair, but they have created year-round business opportunities. Carson said about three days a week, some sort of horse show - from private events to training - take place on fairgrounds because of the upgraded facilities. "It's been a big plus, another draw. We have horse shows coming in from outside the area, people come here for training and riding."
Being an ongoing equestrian destination has enhanced the fairground's sustainability. The fair and its fairgrounds are almost entirely run by volunteers. Government funding is not available for capital improvements and like many local municipalities, the budget-strapped county government can offer little support. In this climate of austerity - a situation familiar to many county fairgrounds - the AgStar grants are life-saving. "We get some funding for our entertainment from the state and the county, but that's about it," said Carlson, "With the AgStar grant, we can use it for leverage. Other funding we get wouldn't happen with out us getting the AgStar grant."
While the AgStar Fund for Rural America may feature the rare grant program for capital improvements on county fairgrounds, AgStar is also known for a recent high-profile project within its funding area, the AgStar Arena on the Minnesota State Fairgrounds. This 27,000 square foot equine and livestock facility, with seating for 600 and a 16,000 square foot oval show ring, opened in 2012 and is used for Horse, cattle, llama, goat and sheep exhibitors as well as 4-H and FFA competitions. According to reports, AgStar Financial Services was the lead donor to the project, which attracted 200 additional donors who contributed to the State Fair Foundation in support of the $3 million building project.
"It's beautiful, and a great place for the younger generation to showcase their livestock," said Paul DeBriyn, President & CEO, AgStar Financial Services. "We are so proud to be able to support this endeavor along with the State Fair Foundation, other corporate sponsors and all of the individuals and families who have come together to make this arena a reality." Other AgStar support for the Minnesota State Fair includes supporting the CHS Miracle of Birth Center, the Beef Expo and machinery exhibits.
It is so important to all of us at AgStar to support the Minnesota State Fair, FFA and 4-H in their efforts to bring agricultural opportunities to young people, and in encouraging youth to consider a career in the industry," said DeBriyn in 2012. "We're hopeful that America's consumers will be open to listening and learning about agriculture. We've seized an opportunity to demonstrate the vitality of our industry to consumers and individuals involved in this great industry."