Lauren Pride, who is in 4-H, mixes feed for her four cows. “It was really sad. There were definitely some days where I was very down,” she says about her mood as the fairs canceled one by one this spring. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“A fair is a rat’s paradise,” the old sheep tells Templeton the rat in the beloved children’s book “Charlotte’s Web,” by Maine’s own E.B. White. The fair in question, where the book has its climax, is thought to be modeled after the Blue Hill Fair, right in the neighborhood for White.

Fairs are a paradise – or at the least a beloved, centuries-old tradition – for many Mainers of the Homo sapiens sort, too. But the coronavirus pandemic has all but canceled the 2020 fair season. Twenty-two of the 25 fairs that make up the Maine Association of Agricultural Fairs have been postponed until 2021. The remaining three – New Portland Lions Fair, Oxford County Fair and Springfield Fair – are listed as “Evaluating for 2020” on the association’s website.

“It’s really a heartache,” says association Executive Director Barry Norris. “Everybody loves the fair.”

These cancellations affect tens of thousands of people – those who attend, those who show animals and handicrafts, and those who work and volunteer. They have an economic impact on the state that no one tracks, although a study done in 2016 by the University of Southern Maine for the Fryeburg Fair – the state’s largest – put the figure for that event alone at $21 million, according to fair president Roy Andrews. They are the eagerly anticipated culmination of as much as a year’s work, and expenditure, for an estimated 2,000 4-H children and teenagers across the state.

A bumper sticker for the fair that wasn’t hangs on the wall in the Fryeburg Fair office. The fair will hold a number of events virtually, however. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

And going to the fair – indulging in fried dough and sausage sandwiches; thrilling in cheap, tough cars smashing into one another at the Demolition Derby; inspecting row upon row of zucchini pickles in the exhibition hall; and shouting encouragement from the grandstand as small children chase small piglets in the pig scramble – is a cherished summertime tradition for many Mainers.

Fairs are “point of pride events for the community,” said Maine humorist Tim Sample, who ticks off the many, many fairs he has performed in over almost four decades. “Everybody can tell you stories about the time they went to the fair.” He launched into several himself. “Everybody has a favorite fair,” he continued. Sample compared their resonance and “mystical quality” to “the smell of grandma’s baking.”

In an ordinary year, Maine’s fair season stretches from the Monmouth Fair in mid-June to the Fryeburg Fair in early October. In time, it extends from 1818, when the Skowhegan State Fair was established, through 2020, when the state’s newest fair, the Washington County Fair in Pembroke, had been scheduled to open its gates for the first time. And while it’s neither here nor there, we can’t resist mentioning the Waterford World’s Fair, which modestly bills itself as “Maine’s Most Improved Small Fair.” Skowhegan, by the way, plans to host a small exhibitor-only fair this year in order to retain its status as the “Nation’s Oldest Consecutively Running Agricultural Fair.”

The last times – the only times – many of these fairs have ever canceled was for the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic and/or for World War II. And while you may attend for just a single cotton-candy-fueled, Zipper- and Scrambler-charged summer afternoon, the nonprofit and not-for profit groups that organize these multifaceted events work year-round to pull them off.

Roy Andrews, president of the Fryeburg Fair, looks at an old Fryeburg Fair poster at the fairgrounds on Thursday. “We certainly do not want to create a hot spot right here in the Fryeburg area,” he said of the fair’s cancellation. “We’d have a lot less people and we’d need a lot more. We would lose money on it, and a lot of our vendors and cattle growers would lose money. It’d be a losing situation all the way around for us.” Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

THE FINANCIAL HIT 

The fairs are feeling the pain of postponement. Some fixed expenses continue even when the fair doesn’t, costs like insurance, lighting, mowing and maintenance of acres of fairgrounds, complete with grandstands, racetracks and barns. Remodeling projects and new bathrooms have been postponed. Not only will fairs lose the take from the gate this summer, their largest source of revenue, but also income from rentals they’d see in an ordinary year. The dog shows, horse shows and weddings that rent out fair facilities? Canceled. With the state’s casinos closed or operating at reduced capacity, and harness racing constrained or suspended, the state-set percentage of their take that would normally go into a fund for fairs is mostly gone, too.

“It’s extremely difficult. We’ve suffered a huge loss of revenue,” said Jeff Steinman, treasurer of the Cumberland County Fair. “The treasurer is not the most popular person in an organization like this to begin with. Right now I am a big ol’ wet blanket. We are on an allowance.”

While no one appears to have quantified the amount, local towns will miss the annual economic boost from their local fairs. In Cumberland, Steinman “conservatively” estimated that amount at $2.5 million to $3 million. He’s thinking of the food sellers who get their supply of hot dog buns from the local bakery; the oil companies that fuel the midway rides; the car and tractor dealerships that man tables at the fair as a way to generate future business; the gas stations that fill up the tanks of fairgoers’ cars; the soap vendors, Skee-Ball operators, and double-glazed window salesmen whose individual fair takes will come to a big fat zero this summer.

Andrews, of the Fryeburg Fair, added to that list: “Off-fair parking – they do very well. A wild guess, it’s probably $150,000 to $200,000,” he said. “Local businesses like the person who picks up our trash from the fair. That’s a pretty good chunk of change.”

Agreed Norris, of the Maine Association of Agricultural Fairs: “Postponing impacts everybody from the fairgoer to the person who sells the hamburgers. It’s a very large trickle-down system that occurs.”

Take Amy Grant and her husband, Jim, of Good Karma Farm in Belfast. The couple has sold soap at the Common Ground Country Fair for 22 years, and wool for the last eight. A not inconsiderable 25 percent of their yearly income comes from just two shows held every fall – the Common Ground Country Fair, an event of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, and the New York Sheep and Wool Festival. The former is moving online; the latter has been canceled.

Back in Cumberland, the nonprofit Cumberland-North Yarmouth Lions anticipates a year of belt-tightening. The local Lions chapter has run a booth at the fair for 40 years selling fair food like chicken fingers, Coca-Cola and fries.”That one booth is indeed our largest fundraiser of the year,” club president Marilyn Matthews said.

The money the Lions raise during the weeklong fair goes toward the charitable causes dear to the organization’s heart: scholarships for Greely High School students, programs for the deaf and blind, Meals on Wheels, the local food pantry. Club members have already met to talk about ways to make up the difference: Do they bake more apple pies for their annual fall sale? Find more takers for their holiday citrus boxes? Offer fair food for curbside pickup? But Matthews doubts that these, even taken together, can make up even half of the shortcoming.

“As far as giving, those are tough decisions,” she said. “We want to support our core causes, but the degree of giving might not be at our normal level. It is going to be slim this year. ”

Multiply that effect by 25 fairs and countless nonprofits – 25 nonprofits set up at the Fryeburg Fair alone – most of them selling food, according to Andrews, 82, whose first job at the fair was as a 15-year-old greasing pigs for the pig scramble; his father, brother, son and daughter-in-law have all been involved, too. “I encourage people to write a check to their favorite nonprofit here at the fair,” he said. “There are no calories in a check, and you feel just as well after.”

THE HEART OF 4-H

The cancellations have also hit a number of the 4-H kids around the state in their pocketbooks, especially those who show “market” animals at the fair – lambs, hogs or beef cattle that they raise for as much as a year and then sell at fair auctions for slaughter after a turn in the show ring.

Asked about the reaction of her charges to the cancellation of the Cumberland County Fair, Jenn Grant, the fair’s 4-H beef leader, said, “Some are extremely disappointed. Most.”

Among that group is 17-year-old Lauren Pride of Limington, who this summer and fall intended to show three market steers (Roper, Ariat and Cinch, by name), two market lambs, two show heifers and two show ewes, all animals she raised, trained, loved and, excepting one calf, paid for herself. (“Show” animals are sold to be bred, not for meat.) She and her family had planned to attend the Cumberland, Fryeburg, Ossipee, Skowhegan, Topsham and Windsor fairs, as well as large regional fairs in Massachusetts and Kentucky. (Her parents met in 4-H. Her older brothers also participated. “I was kind of born into doing 4-H,” Pride said.) Instead, her summer calendar is wide open.

Lauren Pride performs a training routine with Ariat, a crossbred cow that is a 4-H project animal. The money she makes from selling her steers will go toward paying for college. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“People don’t really think about it, but a lot of money and time goes into those animals,” said Pride, a rising Bonny Eagle High School senior who started out in 4-H as a 5-year-old racing pigs. “For their grain, for their upkeep and for the steers themselves. I pay for the steers. My parents pay for food and sawdust and vet bills and all of that. Every steer that I sell goes straight into my college fund. Instead of paying for college, my parents pay for my animals to teach me how to work for my money.”

In Grant’s experience, nine out of 10 4-H’ers put the money they earn at the fair into college accounts – money earned from auctioning their animals or, a much smaller amount, from winning ribbons and grand champion. But potential lost income from the cancellation of fairs this summer is but one aspect of 4-H’ers’ heartache. By all accounts, 4-H kids form close bonds, and hanging out together at the fairs each summer, getting to see and learn from their extended “fair family,” is a highlight of the year.

“Fairs really keep these kids involved in 4-H,” said Connie Woods, a leader of the Cumberland County All-Star 4-H Dairy Club. “At 5, 6, 7, 8, tons of kids join. By the time they are 12 or 13, they have so many other things – like soccer games – they don’t have any time for this anymore. The fairs keep them involved. It’s like that carrot at the end of your nose, something to keep you going. The fairs are the fun part. Kids don’t mind how much they have to work at a fair. Show day is very exciting, but it’s long, hard and sometimes very hot. And yet the kids love it. ”

Agreed Pride, “The fairs are what I live for. ”

Folk dancing at the 2018 Common Ground Country Fair. “The decision to not have an onsite fair was a really difficult one,” said Fair Director April Bouchard. “All of the 25 fairs throughout the state of Maine are such huge touchstones for the community. Also, there’s that aspect of grief. Many of us are needing to let go of how we want things to be and adapt to how things are, and that’s really tough.” David Leaming/Morning Sentinel

ONWARD ONLINE

And yet …

The Cumberland County Fair is planning a virtual auction, so that the 4-H’ers can still auction off their animals. Fryeburg is working on some virtual events, as well, and Pride has already participated in several national virtual shows.

“You take videos of your animal, send them in and they judge them off of the video. On the video you are doing the same things you would do in the ring,” Pride explained. “You kind of get to show them, but not in person.”

Ever resourceful, Pride has spent time this summer figuring out how to sell her ewes privately, as well as her market lambs, the latter for breeding rather than meat; she’s confident, given the high level of interest in local eating boosted by the pandemic, that she’ll be able to sell her market steers, too.

“I love showing my animal. That’s always my preference,” Pride said, “but I am trying to make the best of the situation we’re in. I don’t really have a choice, so you just have to take the ball and roll with it.”

Belfast soap- and wool-maker Amy Grant is making the best of it, too. She is a volunteer co-coordinator for the Common Ground Country Fair’s Maine Marketplace and is hard at work helping turn a fair that celebrates the hand-made and low-tech into a 21st-century online affair. She thinks she may not make as much money as in an ordinary, Birkenstocks-on-the-ground year. She worries about the Luddite-inclined farmers who still apply for a spot in the fair each year by paper and a check. She knows that for “a lot of people this is not going to be an easy pivot. It’s just not.”

But she also spies opportunity. Farmers who are normally too busy to participate in the fair – it takes place every September at the height of the harvest – may be able to join a virtual event. The Maine Marketplace, rather than merely coinciding with the three-day fair, will stay online through Christmas, giving vendors an extended season to sell their wares.

Fair Director April Boucher expands on the theme. This year, people from around the world can “attend” Common Ground, she said. Talks, such as the ever-popular “How to Grow Garlic,” “could be accessed if you are up in the middle of the night.” The carbon emissions the fair is responsible for – Common Ground is held in the tiny town of Unity and the vast majority of roughly 60,000 fairgoers drive there – will drop dramatically. And, Bouchard added, laughing, “Parking will not be an issue this year.”

“My feeling is that MOFGA is going to set the standard with this event,” Grant said, adding, “This is the new reality, and we are all doing the best we can. You can’t wallow. You’ve got to make things happen.”

To a man (and woman), every person interviewed for this story said they’d miss their fair; their “fair family”; their favorite fair foods; the fireworks; the Ferris wheel; the farm focus; the bragging rights afforded blue ribbon winners; the smells, sights and sounds. At the same time, for the most part, Maine’s fair community is staying positive. Organizers and participants are making country fair lemonade out of pandemic lemons.

“I think it’s going to hit me, and I’ll feel worse come fair week,” said Lyle Merrifield, president of the Cumberland County Fair, which has had to postpone its 150th anniversary to 2022 (it had been scheduled for next year). “But it’s not the biggest problem. We’re optimistic we’re going to have twice the fun in ’21.”

Correction: This story was updated at 5 p.m. Monday, July 27, 2020, to correct the spelling of April Boucher’s name.

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