County fairs still matter — maybe more than ever

posted July 24, 2017 10:28 a.m. (CDT)
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by / Heidi Clausen, Regional Editor |

It’s late-July, and the Upper Midwest is in the thick of fair season. This certainly doesn’t come as news to the thousands of 4-H and FFA families who have devoted the past several weeks, or even months, to training livestock and finishing other exhibits.

County fairs have a rich history in Wisconsin and surrounding states. Wisconsin’s oldest county fair, Waukesha, dates back 175 years, to 1842. These events provide valuable learning opportunities for people of all ages, along with family-friendly activities that the whole community can enjoy.

Some people question the relevance of the county fair when so few people are actively engaged in farming. We would argue that that fact makes county fairs more important than ever.

Yes, farming has changed, and that has changed the dynamics of local fairs; exhibitor numbers in more traditional project areas such as dairy have dropped off significantly in some counties.

That’s why we need to use fairs as a way to remind the public of the vital role that agriculture and rural communities continue to play in our economy and daily lives.

The success of our fairs hinges on the youth, whether they’re exhibiting cattle, crops and clothing or more up-and-coming projects like computers. Some farmers generously allow non-farm youth to show their livestock at the fair, providing invaluable hands-on learning about the realities of food production that will stick with them into adulthood.

Exhibitors stand on the front lines in a key public relations campaign. As you interact with fairgoers visiting the barns, take that responsibility seriously; interacting with you or observing you with your animals may be their only exposure to agriculture this year.

Fairs began as a way to bring friends and neighbors together and showcase hard work and effort, and those things still matter.

Along with their educational impacts on both exhibitors and attendees, county fairs have a significant economic impact, with more than 3 million people attending one of Wisconsin’s 70-some county fairs in 2011, bringing in an estimated $150 million.

According to a UW-Whitewater study, the Walworth County Fair generated more than $6.3 million in spending by attendees at the fair and about $1.3 million in sales for hotels, restaurants and other businesses. The fair created some 116 full-time jobs.

In surveying 1,022 people at the 2009 fair, UW-Whitewater found that the average attendee that year spent $11.50 on refreshments at the fair, $3.17 for transportation or parking and $1.56 at a local restaurant.

There were three major forms of economic impact on the county from the six-day fair — expenditures at and around the fair (refreshments, carnival rides, etc.); expenses paid by the fair such as salaries to employees; and livestock auction sales.

Almost all facets of Walworth County are positively affected by the fair, according to the study. Areas most positively affected are grocery stores, local restaurants and local organizations that set up food stands at the fair.

“It is clear that the Walworth County Fair will continue to pay dividends to the county on its investment,” the study stated.

Throughout our 40 years, The Country Today has been a supporter of fairs, whether it’s through staff-written stories from fairs statewide or the publication of our annual fair guide. The countless volunteer hours behind the scenes at fairs aren’t lost on us.

If you spot one of our writers at your fair, don’t be bashful about feeding them a story idea; we appreciate your input.

If you’ve never been there, or it’s been a while, take time this summer to swing by your local fair. Stroll through the barns, strike up a conversation with a young exhibitor, watch live judging and grab lunch at the 4-H food stand.

You’ll be glad you did.

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