COVID-19 has caused widespread event cancellations, leaving many organizations struggling to survive
By Jackie Clark
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating effect on many agricultural societies in Ontario due to the cancellation of fairs and events. The Ontario government has taken a first step in supporting those groups.
“In a nutshell, (the pandemic) brought (ag societies) to a halt,” Vince Brennan, the manager of the Ontario Association of Agricultural Societies (OAAS), told Farms.com. Even when restrictions in Ontario loosened to allow for groups of 50 or 100 to gather, holding fairs was not practical. Ag society events typically have “thousands and thousands of people attending, and our buildings aren’t set up with crowd control that way, so it just wasn’t practical.”
OAAS has 214 members, 212 of which host fairs.
“Thus far, the OAAS has been notified that 210 of them have cancelled, postponed, or reimagined the traditional fair. At least 40 per cent are holding virtual or reimagined activities this year,” Brennan said. “I think that’s pretty neat … there are some really clever, neat ideas and challenges that they’ve had out there for their fairgoers.”
However, the financial repercussions of the pandemic will be devastating for many OAAS members. The organization surveyed membership to determine costs this year, including mortgages, rent, insurance and any prepaid expenses for cancelled events. About 200 members responded to the survey, and OAAS determined a total fixed cost of $17.4 million for those members, with only $5.2 million in expected revenue. This leaves a shortfall of $12.2 million.
Under normal regulations, ag societies would need to host an event to be eligible to access provincial government funding. The province is modifying those regulations to accommodate the extenuating circumstances of this year, Ontario’s ag minister Ernie Hardeman announced yesterday.
“For this year only, nearly $1 million will be made available to all qualifying agricultural and horticultural societies to help ensure operations,” said the Aug. 20 press release from the government of Ontario.
“It’s not new money,” Brennan explained. He had not yet heard all the details, but the government is making sure ag societies can qualify even if they do not host an event.
“If they qualify, that’s a maximum of $3,000 (per) fair,” he said. For about 60 of the OAAS members “that will probably pay their bills and get them by for the year.” For many others, however, it will fall short.
“There’s going to have to be some creative work” to keep these agricultural societies afloat, he added.
As for the OAAS itself, “our revenue is generated through a formula of collecting membership fees on a ratio with gate receipts. With no gate receipts … we’re going to be in a shortfall of $70,000-$80,000. We’re working to try and find some support for that.”
Brennan hopes that the OAAS and its members can get some support from the Ministry of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries, or other groups in the province that support small businesses. Many societies and fairs “bring significant financial contributions to the local communities and their businesses,” Brennan said. “Estimated local economic impact is between $680 and $700 million.”
Additionally, he is encouraging Hardeman and other members of provincial parliament to work with their federal counterparts “to create some funding for agricultural societies in Canada.”
Over half of the fairs and events hosted by members of the OAAS have been ongoing since before 1867 and Confederation. This year marks the first cancellation of events for many.
At agricultural fairs “in many cases, many people have that first-time experience with livestock,” Brennan said. The fairs play a huge role in improving communities’ “understanding of how food gets to table.”
Lobbying for funding “is not something that any of us thought we’d be asking for … our membership has never been used to having our hands held out to try to get some funding. We’ve been very proud of being able to do it on our own, but this is beyond our control,” Brennan said. “I’d just hate to see too many of these agricultural societies, and the history and the tradition that they have, permanently disappear.”