When you think of rural Wisconsin in the summer, some things that come to mind are baseball, barbecues, family reunions and county fairs. Fairs have been held for more than 150 years in America’s Dairyland. People attend fairs for a variety of reasons — to see farm animals like cows, pigs and chickens up close; enjoy the thrill of carnival rides; check out the wide variety of 4-H projects; eat some fair food; see new things; and talk to old friends.
But not this year. The Wisconsin State Fair and the majority of fairs in Wisconsin’s 72 counties were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. The 14 county and community fairs that are being held this summer have been greatly modified in an attempt to keep fairgoers and exhibitors safe.
Leap of faith
One county that decided to hold a modified fair amid the pandemic is Fond du Lac County. Matt Immel, treasurer of the Fond du Lac County Fair, says he is extremely satisfied with how the fair turned out.
“It really went great,” Immel says. “We had a lot of positive feedback. Families were so grateful.”
With the safety of exhibitors and fairgoers in mind, the fair board decided to limit indoor activities, since it is more difficult to transmit the virus outside than inside.
Projects including photography, arts and crafts, and woodworking were judged on July 9, the Thursday before the fair, while foods, gardening and crops projects were judged on July 14, the Tuesday before the fair, as usual.
“The exhibit format changed a bit,” Immel explains. “Projects came in on or before judging day, and they were sent home as soon as face-to-face judging was completed. Exhibitors could pick in-person judging, or they could do virtual judging. I would say about 85% did in-person and 15% did virtual judging. A lot of parents who work liked being able to sign up for a time slot for judging. Every kid’s project was judged.”
While fairgoers were not able to see the projects, Immel says photos of the judged exhibits will be on the fair website by Aug. 1. The fair board also decided to spread out the animal project shows from July 13-17 so basically only kids and parents were in attendance.
“Monday was sheep and goats, beef was on Tuesday, swine and rabbits were on Wednesday, Thursday was poultry, and Friday was dairy,” he says.
“We broadcast the animal shows on Facebook Live. People watched them from home,” he says. “We just thought outside the box a little bit to deliver the shows to the public.”
Immel says fair entries were down overall. “We were usually around 6,000 entries, and we had just over 4,000 entries this year,” he says. “The majority of the decrease came from non-animal projects. Though animal entries were down, roughly the same number of animals were shown as in the past.”
A total of 120 pigs and 120 dairy animals were shown at this year’s fair. Most animals came in the night before or the day of the show and went home right after judging was completed.
“Only the swine stayed because once they are commingled, they cannot go back to their home farms without additional health testing. Additionally, our swine show is a terminal show,” Immel says.
“We held the livestock sale on Wednesday night,” he says. “I was amazed how many local businesses supported the kids. It was great. We’re so lucky with how our businesses support the youth in Fond du Lac County. A lot of businesses committed to sponsoring the fair before COVID hit. We reached out to them as the fair got closer, and they still wanted to participate and help out.”
The public was encouraged to attend the fair July 16-19. Those days were divided into two sessions.
“We had a day session from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.,” Immel says. “We had a circus, a sea lion splash attraction, a barnyard adventure show and Nick’s Kids Show. They ran at staggered times during that time. There was plenty of room for people to spread out. They could bring in chairs to sit in. The vendors were open so people could buy fair food.
“We closed from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. every day so we could do deep cleaning. We hired a cleaning service this year to help make sure the grounds were cleaned and sanitized during the day and during the deep-cleaning time.
“The evening session was held from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. During that time, we had two stages that were set up with local bands, and we had the sea lion show and, of course, all of the fair food you could eat.”
There was no carnival, no grandstand shows, no demolition derby and no tractor pull.
“We made that decision to not open the grandstand because it is usually packed, and we could not find a solution that would allow patrons to socially distance and generate enough revenue to pay for the acts,” Immel explains. “We were quite lucky that all three of our entertainment acts agreed to postpone their concerts to the 2021 fair. So, we already have our entertainment lined up for next year. Anybody who purchased a ticket to one of those shows will have it honored next year.”
One new attraction was added to the fair this year. “We had Horicon Bank work with us to sponsor a fireworks display,” Immel says. “There was a lot of good response to that. It was a nice way to close out the fair on Saturday night.
“The driving force behind holding the fair was to make sure the kids could exhibit their projects, because that is what a fair is all about. We were happy we achieved that goal!”
Grateful to show
Twelve-year-old Sophia Loehr of Mount Calvary, Wis., was happy to have the opportunity to show her 4-H projects at the Fond du Lac County Fair this year. In addition to showing her registered Brown Swiss fall calf, she showed a barrow and competed in dairy and pig showmanship competitions.
A fourth-year member of the Forest Hills 4-H Club, Sophia says showing at the fair this year wasn’t a lot different than other years.
“The biggest difference is my heifer was there just one day,” she says.
Sophia’s fall calf won her class and was selected junior champion of all other breeds. She also received a blue ribbon in dairy showmanship.
“I didn’t do as well with my barrow,” she notes. “He got a white, and I got a white in showmanship.”
She got a blue ribbon on her cupcakes. “I also got a blue ribbon on my drawing of Lady and the Tramp. It got a star and was considered for a Merit Award but didn’t win one. It’s on display now at Gallery and Frame Shop [in Fond du Lac].
“It was great that there was a fair,” she says. “It was awesome that we got to do it, because it takes a lot of time to train animals and work on projects and get them just right.”
Sophia’s father, Joe Loehr is glad his children were able to show at the fair this year.
“There were definitely pluses and minuses to this year’s fair,” Joe says. “It was great to have an opportunity to showcase the kids’ projects and see the improvement they made from last year, like in showmanship. Those are good things. I liked that we just took them in one day and then took them home. Not having to take care of animals for six days at the fair while running the farm was much nicer than other years.
“But it also had the drawback of limiting socializing. For those of us who have gone to a lot of fairs, we didn’t have much chance to socialize this year. So, that was a negative.”
Joe says his three children who showed at the fair each showed only one pig this year.
“They could have each showed two pigs, but when it was time to buy these pigs, I wasn’t sure if there was going to be a fair, so I just bought one pig for each kid,” he explains. “I knew we could find buyers for three pigs if we had to. I wasn’t sure about six pigs.”
Maybe next year
Dairy farmer Cory Picknell of Prairie Farm, Wis., serves on the Barron County Fair Board. He says it was a difficult decision to cancel this year’s county fair.
“It wasn’t easy — there was a lot of discussion,” Cory says. “But at the end of the day, it was about the welfare of people. A lot of people weren’t happy about it. But it came down to public health.”
Cory and his wife, Janelle, have three sons who have shown steers at the Barron County Fair. Their youngest, Kaden, was preparing to show a steer for the last time.
“After 17 years of having kids show at the fair, this would have been our last year,” says Janelle, who is a licensed practical nurse. “It will be very different not having a kid show at the fair. Cory and I were both in 4-H; that’s how we met. So, the fair has been a big part of our lives for a lot of years. It’s tough not having a fair this year. I understand it. I was hoping they could do the 4-H portion of the fair, but that didn’t happen.”
Janelle says the thing she misses most about not having a fair this year is the people. “I like seeing people at the fair and talking to them,” she says.
Kaden also is disappointed the Barron County Fair was canceled. This was the last year he was eligible to show at the fair.
“I had a really nice steer this year. I think he would have done well,” he says. “The last couple of years I had decent steers, but this year I had a really nice steer. It’s disappointing, but that’s what happens.”
Kaden, 20, graduated from Chippewa Valley Technical College in Eau Claire, Wis., in the diesel mechanic program and works full time on the farm with his parents.
“It’s sad that we didn’t have our fair this year, but I’m glad it was canceled because I don’t think a lot of people would have showed up anyway,” he says.
The Barron County Fair Board will allow 4-H and FFA members who were in their last year of showing this year to show at next year’s county fair.
“I’m happy to hear that there is an opportunity to show one more year. I’m thinking I will take advantage of that,” Kaden says. “Hopefully next year I’ll get another really nice steer.”
Kaden’s girlfriend, Kylee Burdick, 19, normally shows her horse at both the county fair and state fair, and a steer at the Barron County Fair. She says she understands why the fairs were canceled.
“I was bummed that the county fair and state fair were canceled, but I think it’s for the best. I miss the fair,” Kylee says. “I’m looking forward to next year’s county fair. I’ve shown my horse since I was really young. I was hoping this would be one to remember. If I show next year, I hope next year’s fair will make up for this year.”