When it was announced that the 2020 Kansas State Fair would have limited judging and be closed to the public as precaution against spreading COVID-19, it was more than just canceling a party on the prairie. It was a big punch to the economy, both locally and on a state level.
That’s why the 2021 Kansas State Fair, to be held Sept. 10-19, in Hutchinson, is much more than a return to Pronto Pups and pig races. It’s a vital shot in the arm for the state’s economy, small businesses — and agriculture as a whole.
Ed Berger took on the role of interim general manager for the Kansas State Fair in October 2020, arguably a tough time for the fair. For the first time in its more than 100-year history, the fair was canceled due to COVID-19 pandemic precautions.
“We went through World War I and World War II, Great Depression, Dust Bowl, even 9/11, and we never did cancel the fair,” Berger says. But this was a situation out of everyone’s control.
Fortunately, arrangements were made for 4-H and FFA projects to be judged, but the fair was still closed to the public. In a normal year, 350,000 people will walk through the gates. Without the public, gate admission income was down, there were no large commercial displays or sponsorship dollars, and food vendors were drastically limited.
Outside of the 10 days of the fair in September each year, the fairgrounds in Hutchinson is host to about 600 events that bring in additional income. That list of events was cut to about 125 or so in 2020, which further cut the bottom line of not only the fair itself, but the vendors who rely on it for a chunk of their annual incomes as well.
A Fair Food and Tunes event held in the late summer and another one held in April brought food vendors and musicians to the fairgrounds as a way to help those vendors and artists, Berger says.
With limited income, there were belt-tightening measures that included staff furloughs and more. Berger says the crisis brought the organization together as a team, with staff taking on additional job responsibilities, and preparing for the 2021 fair.
“It was a time for working and focusing and making sure that we kept our goal in sight of making the 2021 fair strong,” he says.
Recently, those additional events have been returning to the fairgrounds. The annual Mennonite Relief Sale was moved from April to July for more participation. A large dog show returned to the fairgrounds, bringing in 750 dogs and their handlers for a few days. Craft shows, model train shows and horse shows are also returning, and bringing revenue back to the fair and the local community.
2021 fair additions
Currently, the 2021 fair is set to be back to normal, Berger says — no mask mandates, no required social distancing, no vaccine requirements for entry.
“Certainly we encourage everybody to be vaccinated who isn’t, but we think it’s going to be a typical wonderful Kansas State Fair,” he says.
The 2021 Kansas State Fair is on track to be bigger and better than ever, Berger says. There are several new events that the fair has added this year, including an auto show, a pub crawl among Kansas microbreweries on the grounds, mutton busting and bull riding — and on Wednesday of the fair, there will be a “Shop Till You Drop” opportunity for fair vendors to offer discounts on their wares, he adds.
“We’ll have a ‘$4 after Four’ on Tuesday and Thursday,” Berger says. Those days are usually more lightly attended, Berger and fair staff hope a discount ticket rate will draw crowds in.
To see the full list of fair attractions, events, concerts, and contests, visit kansasstatefair.com.
Not many people understand that the Kansas State Fair is not just a place to showcase livestock and other youth projects, but it’s also a unique economic booster for the state. Businesses pay sponsorship dollars for events, commercial exhibitors pay for booth spaces to sell products, and food vendors count on it for a large chunk of their revenue.
“2019 was one of the largest revenue-producing sponsorships that we’ve ever had, and we’ve not surpassed that number yet — but this is the second-largest number, and we’re early,” Berger says. “Commercial exhibitors are anxious to get out here and be part of the fair and get their merchandise sold.”
Food vendors are also eager to return to serving up the latest fried items on a stick after a rough 2020.
“We always have more requests for food vendors than we have space, and they’re hugely excited about coming back,” Berger says. A part of the fair is having a Pronto Pup and finding whatever bizarre foods you can find, and fairgoers can expect some new fair food delicacies to try this year, he adds.
A Kansas tradition
It takes an army of nearly 600 employees and volunteers to conduct the Kansas State Fair every year. From ticket takers at the gates, to supervising entries and buildings, even to running the Ye Olde Mill ride, as well as full-time employees to work on the fairgrounds throughout the year. Berger says they expect many returning employees and volunteers, but they are also currently taking applications.
Bringing back “Kansas’s Largest Classroom” is important to the state, Berger says.
“It’s just a wonderful Kansas tradition,” he says. “And we’ve got a good mix of the new and the traditional. I’ve come to the fair since I was 7 or 8 years old. And you know it’s good to see some things are the same, and it’s good to see some new things. It’s good to see Ye Olde Mill, you know. That’s one of the traditions, and it’s really kind of important to keep them in place.”