Tulare County Fair moving forward with September event

Despite other fairs canceling or postponing, Tulare County’s is currently still coming this fall

TULARE COUNTY – As many fairs throughout the state are canceling or postponing their annual festivities amid the global coronavirus pandemic, the Tulare County Fair is moving forward with planning its September event.

Back in March, Porterville canceled its annual April fair due to the state’s ban on large gatherings to help stop the spread of COVID-19, a respiratory disease rapidly spreading throughout California, the U.S. and the world.

Deadlines for entering livestock auctions are approaching this month for students who hope to participate. The fair is scheduled for Sept. 16 through Sept. 20.

Dena Rizzardo, the new CEO of the Tulare County Fair, said while the fair is not canceled, fairgrounds officials are taking things day by day.

“We are definitely moving forward, but we are doing it with caution,” Rizzardo said. “We are very hopeful that we are going to have a fair, this community really needs a fair right now.”

As other fairs cancel or postpone this year, Rizzardo said that put the fair industry and the businesses that depend on it in a dire position. It’s also hard to decide when to pull the plug considering how much planning goes into putting on the annual event.

“It’s a very large event that can’t be planned in two weeks so we have to go forward with planning it and meeting certain deadlines,” Rizzardo said. “If it comes time that we have to call it off we hope to give people enough notice.”

Even if the Tulare County Fair happens this fall, Rizzardo predicts that fewer people will attend, as some might be weary of contracting or spreading COVID-19.

“We very well could be down in attendance,” Rizzardo said. “If we are lucky enough to have a fair, then we will just be lucky enough to have the fair. We hope we don’t take a large financial hit that puts us in the negative.”

For students involved in FFA and 4H, they are reassessing whether or not they will raise animals to put up for auction at the fair this fall. Raising an animal for the fair is an investment for the student and their family, Rizzardo said.

“We are trying to tell the kids to make sure they can afford these projects and be prepared that the fair might not happen,” Rizzardo said. “It’s a huge business decision for these kids to make, is this something we want to do and is this a risk we want to be taking.”

Luckily, depending on what animal a student wants to raise, they have some time to make their decisions. The deadline to buy and enter beef and dairy cattle is May 19. Goats and swine don’t need to be entered until July 18, 60 days before the fair starts. Rabbits and poultry are due by August 17.

“Those are good decisions to make, especially since breeders can’t afford to buy back an animal,” Rizzardo said. “I’ve heard about good conversations being had with families and their kids about making this investment this year.”

Impacts on youth exhibitors

Canceled and postponed fairs in California are creating a potential hardship for youth and junior livestock exhibitors throughout the state.

Some fairs draw hundreds of student participants who invest time and money on their livestock projects, in some cases incurring loans, said Jay Carlson, agriculture programs manager for the California State Fair and fairs consultant manager for the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

Perhaps a bigger concern, he said in a California Farm Bureau Federation release, is whether fairs that are already struggling financially will be able to survive the cancellations, as many of them rely on event revenue.

“Unless you’ve got a pretty hefty reserve, you might not be able to have a fair next year,” he said.

For now, fairs are “doing everything they can to try to help and support their community, including these junior livestock kids,” Carlson said, noting that fairs have taken different approaches, including hosting online sales, postponing livestock events and making other accommodations to sell the animals.

Carlson, who oversees rules for California fairs, said the state will release standard operating procedures for use during the pandemic to assist fairs trying to provide market options for junior livestock. They include guidelines for collecting and working with the animals so that people maintain proper social-distancing requirements and other restrictions, he said.

“Everybody wants to help and do what they can,” he said, “but there are some limitations.”

Some fairgrounds, for example, now serve as homeless shelters or as field hospitals, he said. Even fairs conducting virtual auctions must find a way to collect animals for processing.

Jim Clark, manager of the Merced County Spring Fair, which was to run April 19 to May 3 before being canceled, said in the release initial plans to use the county fairgrounds as an inspection drop-off point for livestock were scrapped when the site became a virus testing station and used for hospital overflow. The fair has moved inspections to Dos Palos Y Auction.

The fair plans to pool all sales proceeds and other donations, and then distribute the money equally among participants, he said, though he has encouraged students to seek private buyers and other outlets.

“We’re literally doing this on our dime. We’re not taking any commissions,” Clark said. “We really need to help these kids meet their financial responsibilities.”

People familiar with junior livestock auctions agreed students will likely receive lower returns on their show animals marketed outside of the traditional live auctions at fairs. Community support for agricultural youth organizations such as 4-H and FFA typically generates premiums “well above market value,” said Matt Patton, executive director of the California Agricultural Teachers’ Association and California FFA Foundation, in the release.

“My heart just breaks for the kids,” said rancher Sheree Ryan, who raises show steers and heifers in Kern County. “The sad thing is a lot of these animals aren’t going to ever make it to the showroom.”

Earlier this month, the Wood-Claeyssens Foundation, which buys animals sold at junior livestock fair auctions and donates the meat to food banks, notified fairs it typically supports—including those in Santa Barbara, Ventura, San Luis Obispo and Kern counties—that it would not participate this year due to impacts from COVID-19.

“I think that’s really going to hurt those kids at those fairs,” said Tulare County rancher Mike Rivas, who raises and breeds club calves.

Amy Bohlken, an agriculture teacher at Sierra High School in Manteca, said in the news release some of her students have had both parents laid off, and they are making tough decisions, including whether to terminate the projects early because they can’t afford to continue feeding the animals. Others have loans to pay off.

But she said this year’s setbacks also represent a teaching opportunity and an important lesson for her students, many of whom don’t come from agricultural backgrounds.

“There’s no guarantees,” said Lynn Schmitt-McQuitty, statewide 4-H director for the University of California, pointing out that even under normal circumstances, animals could become ill or die before reaching the fair.

Students who are now participating in virtual auctions will have the opportunity to learn a new skill set, she said, including how to photograph or videotape their animals. This experience, she added, could prepare young people “for what reality is like if you become a rancher or a producer.”

Noting that several million head of livestock are sold via online and video auctions in the U.S. each year, Holly Foster, production and marketing manager for Western Video Market in Cottonwood, encouraged fair boards to seek out those services as an option for junior livestock, so they could still provide students the experience of raising livestock for a project and then marketing the animals.

Mary Ann Bush of the California Junior Livestock Association said fair cancellations have led to other trickle-down effects.

As someone who raises project animals in San Benito County, she said she now has “a pen full of goats” that she’s unsure she’ll be able to sell, as students who planned on competing in fairs this coming fall may not want to buy them for fear those events will also be called off.

Dennis Moench, a hog producer in Tulare County, said 85% to 90% of his sales go to 4-H and FFA members and people having private parties.

Since COVID-19, his business “has almost come to a screeching halt,” he said, noting that with the exception of one family who bought a show pig this month, he has had “no calls.” Knowing that the student was buying the pig for an online auction, Moench said he couldn’t charge the family a full price for the animal.

“In these tough times, I just can’t do that to the kids,” he said.

California Farm Bureau Federation reporting contributed to this story.

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