How wet was the 2018 Pennsylvania Fair season? According to Harry Reffner, Executive Secretary/Treasurer Pennsylvania State Association of County Fairs (PSACF) and Board Secretary, Bedford County Fair, the state's average rainfall is about 30 inches per year, but last year an estimated 70 inches fell, impacting the vast majority of the 108 fairs represented by the (PSACF) . These monsoon like climate conditions caused cancelled days and severely suppressed attendance – many of the fairs had to cancel a full day or more.
The Pennsylvania fairs may run the gamut of small to mid-size outdoor events, but the majority are very community oriented, only running for a weekend or a few days. The loss of even half a day can severely impact the event and put a significant dent in revenue and the necessary budget for next year's fair. Heading into the annual convention, this downbeat attitude was deepened by the apprehension over the unknown status of state funding.
“[2018 was] not a good year, rain affected 85 of our fairs,” said Reffner. “There was a five day fair that cancelled four out the five days. People don't come out in the rain, which was heaviest in August and September when most of our fairs are held. They had to tighten their belts and conserve their resources. They were looking for entertainment and other things that were affordable and would save money.”
The most contentious issue was fair funding by the state. Since 1986, the state has had the PA Fair Fund which includes funding for: Agricultural Fair Operating and Premiums; 4-H and FFA programs and Capital Improvement Matching Grants. But renewing the program has not been consistent in recent years and while a restoration of funds was expected to be an approved line item in this year's state budget, that budget was not signed by the governor until after the convention.
“I would say currently that our fairs are strong, as long as they have the funding,” said Sally Nolt, President of the PSACF – her official term began with the 2019 convention – as well as Secretary of the Elizabethtown Fair. “The funding is for general upkeep and needed improvements, it isn't all for premiums and trophies.”
According to Nolt, the funding had been “cut way back under Tom Corbett (R), who was governor 2011-2015. He was succeeded by Tom Wolf (D). Wolf was reelected in 2018. “Wolf has been very supportive of fairs.”
This continued funding for the state's fairs alleviated much anxiety for the rain impacted sector. “Everyone is getting their funding,” said Nolt. “Our government advisory board met at the convention and everyone who attended that meeting reviewed the necessary paperwork to submit. I know that because of the weather, the fairs and the carnival companies really suffered, that makes the funding even more important for this year.”
While the fairs were able to breathe a sigh of relief that the much needed support was reinstated for 2019, the association is also planning a fervent turnout for the annual reception at the state capital. Held in June, this is when the association and its lobbyist hosts a gathering with statewide officeholders. “In June we have our meet and greet with our lobbyist,” said Nolt. “We want to keep the funding going. Our legislators have been very supportive.”
In addition to legislative planning at the convention's advisory committee meeting, Tracy Barone, the Fair Fund Administrator from the Department of Agriculture, gave a well-attended seminar – Fair Funding Overview – offering an in-depth seminar covering the fair funding issues for 2019, including the newly developed E-Grants system that will help facilitate the process.
The Table-Top discussions included such topics as “How do We Keep Our Current Fairgoers while Attracting the Young Crowd,” “Budgets and Fiscal Planning,” “Passes and Wristbands,” “Aging Boards & Planning for Transition to New Members,” “Sponsorships for All Volunteer Fairs,” and “Are You OSHA Audit Ready?”
The convention also featured multiple workshops on animal issues, including one entitled –“What Could Shut Down Your Fair?,” which covered the many emergencies or crises to prepare for related to animal welfare and human safety at a fair, ranging from animal diseases, quarantine considerations, and intentional disruptions as a form of protest as well as a breakout session on the “current tactics of animal activists, what you have to allow, how you can prepare, and how to potentially identify activists ahead of time,” according to a PSACF press release.
Fairs Feature Agriculture
Reflecting the agricultural mission of the PSACF membership, the convention's theme was ‘Fairs Feature Agriculture.' David Hallstrom, the outgoing PSCAF president and fair manager of the Clearfield County Fair, was mainly responsible for organizing the convention and coming up with the theme. “I don't remember how I came up with the theme, we were throwing some things around,” he said. “If it wasn't for Agriculture, there wouldn't be any county fairs at all. I was happy to see the amount of participation at this year's convention. Over my term as president and vice president, I made official visitations to 60 some odd fairs. No two fairs are alike, we all can learn from each other, but we all support agriculture.”
While the association remains steadfast in its support for the states farmers and the associated 4-H and FFA programs essential to the fair system, Nolt pointed out that “it really doesn't look good for our dairy industry, they are really struggling. At our fair with Dairy Feeder Cows, we let the kids have them but we didn't have a sale.”
The convention also featured 165 tradeshow exhibitors – including two new rodeos – and an entertainment showcase with nearly three dozen musical and other acts. “We are known to have one of the best tradeshow floors of any fair convention,” said Ruffner.Another convention highlight was the crowning of the 2019 Pennsylvania Fair Queen. Mikara Anderson of the Huntingdon County Fair received this year's crown. During her reign, she will help promote the state's fairs and farmers throughout the upcoming season. “Pennsylvania's agricultural ambassadors help to make the connection between farm and fork – producer and consumer – and nowhere is that intersection more prominent than at our county and community fairs,” said Russell Redding, Agriculture Secretary. “Mikara is the latest representative chosen to tell her agricultural story – and the story of volunteers, vendors, and exhibitors at our fairs – to a statewide audience. I look forward to working with her over the coming year.”