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Will it be a Fair Season to Remember?
Published Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Sheep sheering at the Hillsborough County Agricultural Fair in New Boston. Courtesy of the Hillsborough County Agricultural Fair.

Die-hard fair-goers were stunned by the recent announcement that after 142 years, the Rochester Fair closed its gates for the 2017 season. But to many industry experts, Rochester’s financial instability and slump in attendance is an indicator that fairs cannot solely rely on pumpkin contests and demolition derbies to draw crowds.

However, it’s not as if fairs will evanesce from modern culture with the likes of horse races and medicine shows. In fact, according to Marla Calico, president of the International Fairs and Expositions, many state fairs are seeing a boom in attendance much like the resurgence in farmers markets. People want to know how their food travels from the farm to their plate, says Calico. She says organizers who capitalize on the locavore movement, educate younger audiences and provide programming that reflects community trends will thrive.

Fairs across the country are trying to court a younger audience. According to an October 2015 report from Governing.com, California’s state fair hosted the first U.S. National Drone Racing Championships in 2015; the D.C. State Fair in Washington D.C., which legalized the cultivation of marijuana, held a Best Bud competition; and the New Mexico State Fair worked with a local craft brewer to create an official New Mexico State Fair beer. Other fairs are bringing in food trucks to expand beyond traditional fair food.

Millennials may not be as invested in farm traditions as previous generations, but they do appreciate off-the-beaten-track adventures to experience local culture, says Ben Amsden, who directs the Center for Rural Partnerships at Plymouth State University. If fairs can tap into that yearning, perhaps they can reel in a new audience. That balance between tradition and offering something new to draw the next generation of attendees is a challenge the state’s various fairs are trying to figure out.

It’s difficult to pin down the health of NH’s fairs, as it has been years since their financial impact has been studied. The last full report was issued in 2002 by the Institute for NH Studies at Plymouth State University, which showed fair visitors, exhibitors and operators spent an estimated $40.6 million at or near the fair grounds during the fairs, including $400,000 in direct purchases from farmers. A FY2011 report on the “Impact of Agriculture on NH’s Economy,” prepared for the NH Department of Agriculture by the Institute for NH Studies at Plymouth State University, stated spending from fairs had dropped to $37.1 million.

That report stated agricultural fairs in NH generated 907 jobs, $27.4 million in household income and $7.1 million in state and local government receipts. Neither the NH Department of Agriculture nor the NH Division of Travel and Tourism could provide updated information about NH’s fairs. Despite NH’s long agricultural history, the state hasn’t provided any financial assistance for fairs since the 1970s.

There are 10 fairs that are members of the NH Association of Fairs & Expositions. Fair season started in July with the Stratham Fair, which markets tradition to draw an audience with the tagline, “Experience a piece of the past…in the present.” The fair, which marked its 50th year of operation, offers traditional attractions, including entertainment, 4-H activities and midway rides, and attracts about 20,000 attendees annually. The fair season will stretch into October when the Sandwich Fair will close out the season.

Competition and Challenges
No matter how spectacular the entertainment or spot-on the marketing blitz, events jammed into only a few days can’t fight the ultimate obstacle: Mother Nature. A pounding rainstorm or insufferable heat wave dampens fair proceeds for any one year, and the only rescue for such a calamity is the hope for better weather the following year.

Fairs also compete with other summer fanfare. In NH, weekenders have plenty to see and do, from music jamborees and arts festivals to living history museums, amusement parks and the state’s beaches and mountains. Large fairs with sufficient coffers are likely to weather the vicissitudes of any future recessions. But attempts to sustain their charm and significance are at odds with a public equipped with a daily drumbeat of online games, movies and social media.

The living room is also a rival for these agricultural fairs. Unlike the era where neighbors congregated outdoors to exchange recipes and local scuttlebutt, people now reach out on social media.

This news doesn’t bode well for rural regions where town ledgers record more deaths than births. And with the closing of the 142-year-old Rochester Fair for at least this season, area urbanites and suburbanites have lost an opportunity to witness first hand sheep shearing, oxen at work or other vestiges of the state’s farming heritage—that which is quintessentially NH.

Homegrown vendors like Chick Embroidery are another casualty of the fair closing. Bob Chick and his mother Lillian, both of Rochester, depend on the fair to sell their embroidered hats and tee shirts. The fair is part of the town’s culture, they say, as they reminisce about the logos they designed for the sulky driver shirts in the heyday of horse racing, which ended in 2007.

Lillian and Bob Chick of Chick Embroidery at the Rochester Fair. Courtesy photo.

“The fair produced a good portion of our sales,” says Bob Chick, who is seeking new venues to display his handicrafts.

The Rochester Agricultural and Mechanical Association board of directors made what some perceived as a blasphemous strike against the state’s rural legacy when it announced the Rochester Fair would not open for 2017. While Norm Vetter, the board’s president, did not return calls requesting an interview, it was an uncomfortable decision for the board, according to media reports. However, the fair had stumbled in the red for at least a decade and owed just under $350,000 in addition to a $392,000 mortgage.

Mark Perry, who managed the Rochester Fair since 2001, says, “if you look at fairs in general through the eyes of dollars and cents, you’d never hold one anywhere.” He says the fairs create a community event that succeeds in generating more goodwill than business profits. The Rochester Fair board of directors wanted both. In June, Vetter told Foster’s Daily Democrat that the board terminated Perry because of the way he managed funds.

At a Rochester fair stakeholders meeting in July, grievances were aired about the handling of the fair and consensus was reached to subdivide and sell a portion of the fairgrounds to pay down debt, according to a Foster’s report. That plan still has to be defined and then approved by stockholders and the state.

Still Big Draws
The bigger fairs, like those in Hopkinton and Deerfield with a century-old history, receive more than 65,000 visitors and sweep in enough cash to claim a small profit. Three years ago the Hopkinton Fair in Contoocook Village delayed its opening from a Thursday to Friday to compress its Labor Day weekend festivities into four days rather than five.

Attendance remained around 70,000 at the Hopkinton Fair, says board member and treasurer Bob Allen, safeguarding the bottom line. Between 100 and 125 employees man the ticket booths, pick up garbage and other custodial tasks while a similarly-sized roster of volunteers also pitches in.

Whereas Hopkinton and Deerfield maintain paid staff, fairs in Hillsborough, Cornish and Belmont are all-volunteer. Janell George is the treasurer for the Hillsborough County Agricultural Fair, which peaks at around 8,000 visitors.  Situated in the backyard of NH’s largest city, Janell says the three-day fair’s  $60,000 budget competes against events with larger advertising budgets. The costs to maintain electrical and plumbing codes, permits for tents and insurance expenses are always on the rise. And just one rainy weekend can spell disaster. “If your vendors don’t have good attendance, they won’t come back,” she says. And that’s a large slice of a fair’s income.

Activities at the Hillsborough County Agricultural Fair include horse pull, top, and on-stage entertainment, below. Courtesy photos.

Competing events also subtract from the pool of available volunteers. Wayne Gray, president of the Cornish Fair, says only a decade ago he could get a dozen people to show up for grounds projects. “Now I’m lucky if I can get three,” he says. “The younger generation doesn’t like to volunteer their time as much as the older ones.” (Half of the fair’s board of 20 directors is over the age of 65.)

In Hopkinton, the fair association owns around 60 acres and loans its grounds to charities like 4-H and Lions clubs, and sometimes rents the property for a nominal fee. But it’s the revenue from those three pivotal days—when the leaves turn golden and vendors peddle midway tickets and trinkets—that determine the budget for the other 362 days.

The demands of upkeep for facilities puts pressure on that budget, says Allen. Recently, the association had to bury its electrical cables to comply with newer safety codes, costing upwards of $50,000. “We’re not rich,” says Allen, “But we make enough to keep up the grounds and buildings.” Allen says draft-pulling contests, where oxen pull concrete weights up to 12,000 pounds to claim ribbons in 10 classes of weight, along with the demolition derbies, always draw an audience.

However, it’s not enough to offer the traditional kaleidoscope of activities. Beyond the Tilt-a-whirl and Super Slide, the fried dough and cotton candy, families want a different type of showstopper. And Allen says nowadays they’ll travel 100 miles or more to get it. This year, the fair association booked the nationally known Recycled Percussion, which played at the Super Bowl and in Las Vegas. The four-man rock group, which received its first break at its 1994 high school talent show in Goffstown, will hand out drumsticks and pots and pans for an interactive audience experience.

In his second year as president of the Belknap County 4-H Fair in Belmont, Earl Leighton says he wants to double the typical 4,000 attendees. Leighton eliminated the midway to change the perception of fairs as money pits. “We want a family of four with $100 in their pockets to walk out with a couple dollars,” he says. “And after 30 minutes, they shouldn’t wander around looking for something to do.”

A competitor in the Belknap County Fair's "doodle bug" tractor pulling competition. Courtesy photo.

About two years ago, Leighton introduced a display of 16-bobbin braiding machines from the 1930s, which intertwine textile fibers to form fishing lines or clotheslines. “They’re a mechanical ballet to watch,” he says. He also brought in a tractor show with sponsors and is seeking artisans to set up booths for the fair. He says while offering new attractions brings in more people, “change is hard.”

A vendor sells handmade bracelets and necklaces made from the Belknap County Fair's 16- and 8-spool braiding machines. Courtesy photo.

It’s unclear whether fairs like the one at Belknap can inspire nostalgia for a bygone era when agriculture fed much of the country’s commerce. Society has evolved, says Amsden of Plymouth State University. People no longer live where they work or near extended family members. More than a hundred years ago, the rural fair was the summer event when families and neighbors convened. Now it’s not the only game in town. Fairs need a new hook. If organizers can give their agricultural fairs a distinctive sense of place, says Amsden, they just might stand a chance.

Ox pulling at the Belknap County Fair. Courtesy photo.

And perhaps the younger generation, fraught with digital distractions, will find solace in the authenticity of local craftsmen, farm handlers and carny barkers on a hot summer day.

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