Savannah Siegler, of Springfield 4-H Club, leads her 1,330-pound Grand Champion steer at last year’s animal meat sale. The 171st Walworth County Fair was canceled last week due to continued concerns related to COVID-19 however, the animal meat sale, junior fair exhibits, including the livestock, and other projects will proceed. (File photo by Chad Hensiak)

Organizers plan to have animal meat, junior livestock sale

By Tracy Ouellette

Staff Writer

Officials with the Walworth County Fair, which was one of few holdouts in the state still planning to host a fair this summer, announced last week the event has been canceled as the threat of COVID-19 grows.

The Walworth County Agricultural Society board voted July 22 to cancel the 171st Walworth County Fair, according to the organization.

The board also canceled the popular Ribfest, which had been rescheduled from July to mid August.

“The board was concerned these events could pose a risk to Walworth County residents by attracting visitors from areas with much higher COVID-19 infection rates,” Larry Gaffey, Walworth County Fairgrounds general manager, said in a news release that accompanied the announcement. “Ribfest and the fair are the largest events we hold at the fairgrounds, attracting people from as far away as Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota and other counties in Wisconsin,” he said. “The board feared the influx of visitors could strain the county’s public health system.”

Fair officials said they were determined to preserve many of the events for youth.

“We are concerned about the public health, but also feel an obligation to the young people who have spent a year or more raising livestock, doing photography, gardening crops, woodworking and working on arts and crafts,” Gaffey said. “COVID-19 stole part of a school year from these kids. We will not allow it to ruin their dream projects as well.”

Exhibits, livestock sale to go on

Officials said the junior fair exhibits including livestock, woodworking and other projects will proceed, but will not be open to the public. The annual meat sale will also be held, but details of that event are still being determined, the group announced.

The fair board was set to meet this week to discuss how to proceed with livestock auctions and projects.

Jordann McPherson, the junior goat superintendent for the fair, said the board would provide guidance and a plan in the near future, but at the moment, they had not made any decision on how things would work.

“We understand, everyone is upset the fair is canceled, but sometimes things just fall apart and there’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t force vendors to come if they don’t want to. They tried to put the fair on the best they could, but they couldn’t see into the future,” she said.

“What if none of the vendors showed up. Or, God forbid, nobody showed up at the fair; some fairs have had only 10% percent of the people they normally do. And while the fair isn’t about the money, it does need to be self-sustaining and has to generate an income to return year after year. If we put all this money out and not get it back, we might not be able to have a fair next year or ever again,” McPherson continued.

Jamie Smith, who McPherson said is her “second in command” in the junior goat project, has a daughter and niece who show dairy goats at the fair, and wishes the decision to cancel had been made a bit sooner.

“I understand why they held out,” Smith said. “No one wanted this, but we would have been more prepared if they had decided earlier. But, we kind of knew. When the State Fair went down, I knew. I told my daughter from Day 1 not to get your hopes up.”

Smith said he’s looking forward to seeing how the fair board decides to proceed with the animal sales and exhibits and hopes the community will support the youth like it does every year.

“This is all about the kids,” he said. “They work so hard and this is going to be a lot of money lost for them, which goes toward college. A live auction has the advantage of having everyone there cheering each other on and keeping the bidding going, running up the price. I hope that can be continued if it’s online.”

The decision

Fair organizers said the decision to cancel the fair was based on the steady increase in COVID-19 cases in surrounding states and other areas of Wisconsin. The fair – touted as the largest county fair in the state – is held over the Labor Day weekend and attracts “hundreds of thousands of visitors” from a wide radius, fair officials said. This year’s fair was to run Sept. 2 to 7.

Organizers had worked with the Walworth County Department of Health and Human Services to develop health and safety plans to make the two events as safe as possible, organizers said. Both the fair and Ribfest had been reimagined to reduce congestion and enable easy social distancing. Events had been moved outdoors and the carnival had been spread out to reduce congestion, according to the release.

Gaffey said smaller events hosted by independent event organizers remain scheduled for the fairgrounds. These independent events attract mainly local visitors.

The 171-year-old fair is one of the longest-running events in Wisconsin. Fair officials highlighted a University of Wisconsin economic impact study found the fair annually creates more than 30 local jobs, contributes more than $7 million to the local economy, and generates significant revenue for retailers, restaurateurs, and hospitality companies in the area.

In addition, the fair serves as the year’s largest fundraising activity for many local non-profit organizations and church groups.


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