As much organization goes into staging the annual Orange County Fair, a bit of it is still left to chance. The success (or struggle) of the fair, in most years, is tied to the weather—so much so that organizers moved the event from July to June for a more favorable weather window.
This year, the forecast isn’t the problem. It’s the pandemic.
Last week, the Orange County Fair Association announced it was canceling this year’s event, scheduled for June 17-20.
“There are still so many unknowns and that’s really put us in a spot,” fair board president Willie Lohr said. “We don’t want to take any chances.”
Annually, the fair draws thousands of visitors to its Old Gordonsville Road location in a celebration of Orange County’s agricultural heritage. It features 4-H project animals and demonstrations, live music and entertainment, arts and crafts, garden goodies and livestock shows, among other activities. And while Gov. Ralph Northam’s current executive order bans gatherings of 10 or more scheduled through June 10, Lohr said too many questions remained to move forward with the event on its original date.
“We’ve been having this discussion for a long time and we don’t want to put anyone in a bad spot,” he said. “We want to protect everyone. We’re doing this for the safety of everyone involved. We don’t want to take the chance of putting several thousand people in one area.”
At the same time, he noted, the fair board didn’t want to “disrespect” businesses and sponsors in the community who have generously supported the fair with contributions.
“We don’t want to be a burden on them or put extra pressure on them to support us when they’re likely hurting too,” he said.
Musicians, entertainment, infrastructure and prizes all cost money. Whatever upfront costs the fair incurs it hopes to recoup with strong gate receipts.
“It costs a lot of money to put the fair on and we just don’t know if people can or will come,” he said.
“It’s been a difficult decision all the way around and one no one wanted to make,” Lohr added. “It’s disappointing to have to make this decision, but these are not normal circumstances.”
Lohr said the fair could not be scheduled later in the year because of the varied schedules of vendors, performers and participants, though he hoped the organization’s fundraising tractor pull (usually scheduled in advance of the fair) could be rescheduled this fall.
The fair’s cancellation undoubtedly was disappointing to dozens of 4-H youth who have been spending the last however many months working with their project livestock. But Friday afternoon, Orange County Extension Agent and Unit Coordinator Kaci Daniel announced the organization’s various clubs will still be able to present their animals and efforts in a virtual platform.
“This is what 4-H is all about—life skills and that means managing change,” she said.
The group’s livestock participants will make videos of their animals and participate in a virtual show with remote judges, who then will rank winners based on information and interviews with participants. The biggest difference is they won’t all be together in the fairgrounds’ show ring when the “competition” is held.
In addition to the virtual livestock shows, Daniel said the archery and animal education clubs also will make videos of the skills and projects they would have shared at the fair.
In place of its popular livestock auction, 4-H will host a sponsorship platform open to multiple donors. Daniel said those interested in supporting the 4-H participants can visit the organization’s website, view photos and bios of the youth and their project animals and make pledges, rather than purchasing the animals as they would in years past. Extension staff will later invoice those who choose to support the participants.
“We’re hoping many of those who have supported us in the past will continue to do so,” she said, “and we hope this platform will take pressure off them because the kids can market themselves to anyone else—like their grandparents two states away.”
Rather than buying an animal outright, those who choose to participate are donating to the
4-H-er, Daniel said.
Even if the animals could be purchased, many meat processers are already booked for the coming months, she added.
“Nobody wanted to see the fair canceled, but there are just so many unknowns, the only thing we felt we could promise was a virtual experience,” she said. “If things change and the kids still have their animals, give us a few days and we’ll put together a face-to-face show.”
In the meantime, this is an opportunity to keep 4-H youth engaged and “show off the work they’ve been doing with their animals. Many of them have been spending more time with their animals because they don’t have sports or other things right now to distract them.”
Admittedly, Daniel said it’s likely to be a strange summer with no 4-H camp and now no fair.
“Nobody wants the fair canceled but we have to do what’s in the best interests of everybody,” she said. “We’re trying to make the best of a bad situation.”