In early March, the Canadian federal government announced a half million dollar grant to conduct a study in an attempt to improve Canada’s agricultural fairs and exhibitions.
Here is another example of my taxpayer dollars being spent (wasted?) on yet another study. Does it take a new study to evaluate today’s fairs and exhibitions? I’m not convinced that it does. Evaluation of today’s fairs and exhibitions needs a clear objective look at how the role of fairs has changed over time. The structure of many of today’s fairs is simply “that’s the way it’s always been done”. Do the people that say that still drive buggies pulled by horses instead of cars or trucks? Generally the people that use that phrase are well-meaning nostalgic individuals who have a passion for the event or the history of the event. I am sometimes one of those but even I drive a car.
Let’s take a look at the purpose of the fair when my parents (now 85) were youngsters. The fair was primarily a social event. An event held to bring the whole community together and at that time, the whole community was one hundred percent agricultural or agribusiness. Fifty years later, the ferris wheel still turning and now I am a youngster. The community is no longer totally agricultural. The community has become manufacturing-driven. More non-agricultural businesses have been established. More and more people are leaving the farm to pursue novel, non-agricultural roles. Did the fairs change to accommodate this societal change? In most cases, probably not. Did the attendance numbers at fairs decrease? They certainly did.
Now, in 2008, my children are now older teenagers. Less than two percent of all the population lives on farms. There are hundreds of social activities, clubs, groups, etc. that compete for my kids’ time and money. And don’t forget all the time spent on social networks like Facebook and MySpace. Today’s teens are no longer interested in going to the fairs because there are more attractive recreational activities in which they want to participate. Many existing fairs still operate with the mentality of “that’s the way it’s always been done”. It doesn’t take an expensive study to realize this fact.
Most fairs are operated through the efforts of many committed hard-working volunteers – volunteers that have been involved in the operation of the fairs for decades. Sometimes it’s these well-intentioned volunteers who keep the organization’s structure and example of “that’s the way it’s always been done”.
Agriculture has changed dramatically in the last hundred years. The picture of today’s farms is more corporate and less family or community oriented. More and more farm operations require a second income to order to be profitable. There’s not a lot of time left to make jams, jellies and preserves and enter them in the fair to compete for a blue ribbon.
Maybe a fair should be an avenue where folks that are removed from agriculture can go and experience farm life. The novelty of amusement rides is no longer relevant. Ferris wheels and merry-go-rounds can be seen in parking lots of malls throughout Canada all summer – not to mention at Canada’s Wonderland every day.
During the period of time when the Waterloo Federation of Agriculture hosted the Annual Farm Tour, it was clear that urbanites loved the opportunity to bring their families out for a day of touring farmers throughout the county. Thousands of people went on the tour. They wanted to see the animals and how the products that they ate every day were connected to the farm. Unfortunately issues such as biosecurity and animal welfare perceptions have brought that type of experience to an end.
Changing the role of the fair is long overdue. It’s time for agriculture to educate non-agriculture about their industry. Non-agriculture is definitely interested and wants to learn. The agriculture industry just hasn’t figured out how to teach it. I don’t understand why it takes half a million to do a study. Why not take the half a million and get started acting on the answer instead of studying it? The facts are already there.