By Sue Tiffin
Numerous fairgoers on the weekend described the Haliburton County Fair event hosted by the Minden Agricultural Society as being like a family reunion, and not just those who are related to half the town. (Full disclosure: I counted more than a dozen of my own relatives at the fairgrounds).
It was an event filled with joy. Toes were tapping while live music played, children were in awe as they held bunnies in their laps. Walking through the crowd headed toward the long-awaited horse pull meant manoeuvring through conversations of catch-up and small town chit-chat as people stopped to greet each other after time apart.
Ontario’s agricultural fairs have a long history, with some being older than Confederation. As Adele Espina noted in her History in the Highlands column in the June 1 edition of the Times, Haliburton County’s fair is older than the county itself, having first been held in 1864.
Fairs are long-standing, sociocultural events important in bringing people together, educating about agriculture to visitors that might never have stepped on a farm and for celebrating a rural way of life.
They’re also important to the economy – in 2019, fall fairs contributed an estimated $700 million to local economies around the province.
Though this year’s Haliburton County Fair event was a micro-fair, rather than the whole sights, sounds and smells extravaganza, we were lucky to have it.
By May of 2020, two months after the COVID-19 pandemic had been declared, about half of the province’s 212 fairs had been canceled. By August, 175 fairs were postponed until a date no one knew. Some of those fairs, many of them being a mainstay event in their community for more than 100 years, were already struggling to survive with the challenge of finding balance between agricultural offerings and midway rides and volunteers to make it all happen. Volunteers contributed 1.4 million hours to Ontario agricultural societies in 2019, and like for every group, organization and cause, they are becoming more difficult to find. (Generally the Minden Agricultural Society starts planning next year’s fair directly after the fair just ended – contact Eric Casper at firstname.lastname@example.org to offer a helping hand.)
Great kudos to the Minden Agricultural Society, which faces the same challenges as other agricultural societies throughout Ontario but has consistently tried to keep the fair – our fair – and the spirit of the fair, alive. Over the years we’ve seen novel ideas and reinventions of the Haliburton County Fair – the addition of a Comic-Con, vegetable growing contests for kids, moving to donation rather than a ticket price, micro-events throughout the year – even what we know of as being traditional fair highlights, like for many of us, the midway, are a long ago evolution of fairs from their original agriculture-focused states.
This year, the Minden Agricultural Society put together an event that, while smaller than previous fairs, came together with short notice even during a pandemic, and put a smile on the face of the youngest and oldest people there. We were fortunate to have a fair to go to in our own backyard and we knew it.
What the coming years of forecasted food shortages and disruptive climate change tell us is that it’s time to get back to – or to start – producing our own food and supporting our local farmers. The micro-fair last weekend was a good start to remind us to get back to our roots.