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No payoff: Summer without fairs leaves farm kids heartbroken

TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) — Well before the sun rises and then again after school, Arrissa Swails feeds and waters her goats, fancy chickens and three dairy cows. There’s another trip to the barn at night to hustle the chickens into their coop.

It's a daily routine that typically takes the high school senior at least three hours. This week, she'd be parading her livestock at the Hancock County Fair, hoping to win a grand champion ribbon during her last turn in the show ring. But there is no fair this year for her or anyone else, another tradition wiped away from the 2020 calendar by the coronavirus.

“I bawled my eyes out,” she said about the fair’s first cancellation since World War II. “Honestly, it means everything to me. It’s definitely weird this year without it.” Not many county or state fairs in the U.S. are continuing on without major changes, about 80% have been called off or drastically scaled down by eliminating carnival rides, concerts and tractor pulls, according to the International Association of Fairs and Expositions. Some are only allowing youth livestock competitions and auctions or opening for “fair food drive-thrus.”

The losses have been monumental — the association estimates the total is nearing $4 billion for fair organizations. And that’s not counting the revenue for ride and concession operators and volunteer organizations that raise money by selling milkshakes and corn dogs.

To make up some of the difference, a group of Republicans and Democrats in Congress are backing legislation introduced in July that would direct $500 million to agricultural fairs across the nation. But for those who have spent the past year feeding, cleaning and working with their animals in hopes of winning a blue ribbon and maybe some money for college, there is no replacing the missed experiences of the fair.

“I just love walking the goats in, they’re so happy in the show ring,” said Swails, who has been in 4-H the past eight years. “We have this one, she looks forward to the fair, she’s happy and content at the fair.”

Just like at home, she stays with her animals during fair week from morning until late at night. Hanging out in the barns, camping at the fairgrounds and competing in the judging allowed her to come out of her shell at a young age and meet many new people, said the 18-year-old who lives near the village of Jenera in northwestern Ohio.

“This was my last chance,” she said. In rural America, the county fair remains a cherished institution with agriculture its centerpiece even though farm families now represent less than 2% of the nation's population.

“I call it the farmers’ family reunion,” said Jacki Johnson, who has spent 41 years volunteering as a 4-H adviser in Hancock County, one of Ohio's top crop-producing regions. It was hardly a surprise, though, when fair organizers decided in mid-July to scrap this year’s event for only the second time since it began in 1938. The decision came just a few weeks after the county's fair board said it needed to raise $80,000 because the pandemic caused some businesses to limit their donations and forced the cancellations of other money-making events at the fairgrounds.

"It’s so frustrating to see the sadness on the kids’ faces,” Johnson said. Volunteers in the county did manage to pull together a makeshift livestock competition and alternative auction. But not everyone participated for a number of reasons, including because some had already sold their animals months ago when it became apparent there would be no fair.

Eric Davis, a high school sophomore who's a member of Johnson's 4-H club, was bummed he didn’t get to take this year’s batch of chickens to the fair because he said they’re the best he’s had in six years.

Still, he understands why holding a fair this year with crowds “wouldn’t be a good look” and that it wouldn’t be the same no matter what. “It’s a shame. You do all that and there’s no payoff, but I know there’s going to be a fair next year,” he said.

Eleven-year-old Payne Steffan has plenty more fairs ahead too, but he’s still sad he won’t get to show off his ducks or get to impress the judges with how much he knows. “When you get to take them in the ring, you really get to know if your bird is any good,” he said.

His mom, Brynne Steffan, maybe even more disappointed. She grew up taking dairy cows to the fair and has never missed one, not even last year when she was pregnant and due on opening day. She and her family managed to get to the fair each day and then on the final day — Labor Day — “we packed up, got our ducks out, and went to the hospital and had a baby."

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