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Thank You, Elkanah Watson

This year one sector of our nation’s economy is bucking the recessionary trend—the business of county fairs. Over the next few weeks, if the weather cooperates, the region will benefit from a migration of visitors from all over the region as Americans pass up expensive out-of-town trips in favor of demo-derbies, hot-dog eating contests and 4-H shows.

“So far this year county fairs are doing extremely well,” said Jim Tucker, president and CEO of the 119 year-old International Association of Fairs and Expositions based in Springfield, Mo.

“In California, for example, where the recession has hit hard, the Alameda Fair’s attendance was up 25% while the Wachashaw County Fair in Wisconsin was up over 30%.”

Here closer to home, the Tri-State Fair at Green Mountain Park, based in Pownal, Vt. kicks off on August 19th followed by the Duchess County Fair, the largest six day fair in New York, on August 25th and then the Chatham County Fair in New York, beginning on September 2nd. There are also many more fairs in the area including Pittsfield’s 4-H and youth fairs.

I confess I’m right up there with the kids when it comes to the fair. Corn on the cob, cotton candy, the ring toss, the funhouse and of course the entertainers are all sugar plums dancing in my head on a late summer’s eve. Torn between the racing pigs, the tractor pull and the bull riding events, I find myself in a state of excitement that borders on childlike wonder. And this year the Chatham Fair is headlining Jo Dee Messina while The Dutchess is offering names like country singer, Jason Aldean, Jeff Corvin from the televison show Animal Planet , and Air Supply.

Did you know we owe it all to Elkanah Watson?

Elkanah Watson is the founder of county fairs in America and he was a local boy. Watson was a world traveler who lived and traveled extensively in Europe. He was also a merchant, businessman, skilled promoter and land speculator who established the State Bank of Albany among other enterprises before moving to a 250-acre farm of cropland, pasture and orchards in 1807 near Pittsfield, MA. He was not a farmer but he was an enthusiastic patriot of most things American. He found however, that in this remote, rural area of Massachusetts, farmers knew little about selective breeding of sheep, cattle, soil nutrition and tillage practices. Watson was familiar with the more advanced methods of European farming thanks to his time on the Continent. Over there, farming was ruled by an elitist class of educated men with huge land holdings and thousands of poor tenant farmers. Land ownership was all but closed to the ordinary farmer and farm family.

Watson was determined to advance America’s farming and livestock breeding including one personal pet peeve: the nation’s lack of quality sheep for the production of wool for military uniforms.
In 1810, in order to promote agricultural education and at the same time exhibit his prize livestock breeds, he organized the Berkshire Agricultural Society. The Society’s main purpose was to sponsor an annual agricultural fair in Pittsfield which was held on September 11, 1811.

This first two-day affair drew a crowd of between 3,000-4,000 people, not bad for a backwater village in the hills. It featured livestock exhibitions including a pair of Watson’s Merino sheep, the first in America, on City Square along with the produce from his farm and that of his neighbors. There was singing, dancing, music and religious exercises and unlike the fairs he had visited in Europe, Watson was determined that his fair would be open to the common people.

“Since then,” says Tucker, who now boasts a membership of 1300 in his organization, “county fairs have grown across the nation to showcase agriculture and education among the population which is now 98% urban.”

It’s a good thing they do since, according to a 2006 report by the U.S. Department of Education, 98% of schools located in urban areas do not have a formal agricultural education program and 82% of the seven through twelfth grade school systems also lack formal farming education curriculum.

As educational institutions, fairs were never intended to make a profit which is why most of them are non-profit organizations. However, most fairs try to at least break-even or turn a small profit if they can. The Duchess County Agricultural Society, Inc., which runs their fair, made $30,139 last year in profits. That money goes right back into the facility and the fair for this year, according to Robert Grems, secretary and general manger.

“Remember too, that in 2008 we suffered through the highest gas prices in modern history and attendance still hit a record,” Grems said, “So far this year all the fairs in New England have seen good attendance. I can tell you our advance ticket sales are way up versus a year ago.”

Yet with all the rides, grandstand stars and sideshows, the Dutchess Fair is still an agricultural event. This year the fair will play host to 550 chickens, 150 goats, 250 sheep, 300 dairy cattle and 1900 individual floral entrees.

The Chatham County Fair follows the same business model.

“In a good year, we hope to do a little better than breakeven,” says Vicki Simons, who has been a board member of the Chatham County Fair for the last dozen years (she was also the first woman elected to that board in its 169 years of existence).

“We spend $100,000 to $120,000 just on entertainment alone not counting anything else and we don’t make that back at the gate on ticket sales. Our corporate sponsors make a big difference. They can bring in $70-$90,000 in cash and services.”

In addition, most fairs share a small percentage of the take on amusement rides and charge a rental to the many vendors who show up to hawk games, food and other items on the fairgrounds. Since most fairs are only open for 5-6 days a year, many county fair boards have explored new ways to generate income throughout the rest of the year.

“Our Exhibition Hall dates back to 1884,” Simons said,” we hold weddings there in the summer and recently we hosted a 400- person dinner for Tastes of Columbia County.”

In a fair the size of Chatham’s, fair will hire between 100 people or more to run the fair depending on the day from office workers, ticket sellers, to clean-up crews but non-paid staff dwarf that number. The Dutchess Fair will have 400 people or more on their payroll for the six-day event.

“If you count vendors, exhibitors, 4-H kids, farmers and everyone else it can be as high as 2,500 people,” Simon estimates.

The Tri-State Fair, unlike the fairs in New York, has been struggling to break-even since moving from Hoosick Falls, N.Y. to Pownal, Vt. three years ago. Joe DiFusco, who runs the fair and volunteers his time along with John Mills hopes to break even this year.

“Last year we had 10,000 visitors and I estimate we need 12-14,000 to breakeven.”

He says the secret to getting there lies in the exhibitions and attractions and then recited a long list of this year’s events: lion tamers, a high wire act, a North American Indian cultural celebration, even the keys to a $200,000 house will be given to some lucky winner as part of a radio promotion.

“We are in a beautiful area with New York, Vermont and Massachusetts bordering the fair. I know people will come. We’ve got so much to offer. All we are worrying about is the weather at this point.”

Far and away, the ripple effect of county fairs on the surrounding communalities is where the real economic impact is realized. The New York State Department of Agriculture and Market Statistics estimate that the economic impact of the six day Duchess Country fair alone is nearly $55 million.

“We estimate that 75,000 people visit our fair over six days staying in local B&Bs, eating in local restaurants, buying local gas and who knows what else,” says Simon of the Chatham Fair, “that’s not counting the vendors and other people running the fair. The fair has a tremendous impact here.”

That should be music to our ears since there are relatively few bright spots in this recessionary environment. Our business communities benefit and so do we. Let’s face it. Taking the family to the Tri-State and dropping fifty bucks on rides, food and entertainment still beats a week long cruise, a trip to Disney land or even a weekend in Manhattan. And if you’re like me, you will probably have more fun. So support your community, have a blast and let me know how it was.

Posted in A Few Dollars More, Macroeconomics