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The year the fair went dark

Story by Titus Mohler

The end of September is fair time in Farmville. It’s time for the community to enjoy a final summer fling filled with carnival rides, delicious food stands and bingo. But there was none of that this year. It was all taken away by the COVID-19 pandemic prohibiting gatherings and fun of all types.

There were no agriculture shows, no beauty pageants, no pro wrestling matches and no country music showdowns.

For the first time in memory, fair week, and all the excitement that comes with it, went dark.

“It’s the virus,” Five County Fair Manager Auburn Estes said, explaining the reason for the cancellation. “We felt like with the uncertainty of what was going to happen and putting people at risk of catching the virus, we felt for safety reasons we would just cancel. And of course with the governor’s restrictions put on the people coming to the fair, we just didn’t feel like it was worthwhile to try to do it this year.”

The novel coronavirus pandemic and the efforts to protect people from it have restructured much of life in the world, the country and the Heart of Virginia.

“You had to do this,” Estes said of the fair shutdown. “This is terrible this year.”

Estes shared the thought process he and fair organizers went through the first half of 2020.

“It started out that in March, when things started getting real bad, we felt like, ‘Well, OK, maybe this will pass over. Maybe they’ll find a cure or whatever,’ maybe it was just something that was going to be temporary, so we just had that hope all the way through,” he said. “But when it got down to July and we hadn’t done the preparations that we normally had done, we felt like it was time to make a decision.”

He noted the decision was ultimately made around July 1.

“We waited as long as we could, and the restrictions were just getting tougher and tougher, so we just felt like it was better benefited for everyone just to cancel for this year and work on next year,” he said.

And so a significant void was created in the landscape of fall 2020 for the Heart of Virginia.

Estes explained how the Five County Fair highlights agriculture and the youth, giving young people the opportunity to create exhibits, showing cattle, sheep and other livestock. This is something into which youths invest notable time and preparation, and for some, 2020 was their last opportunity, due to age restrictions.

“They look forward to this each year,” Estes said. “And a lot of these people will show in Farmville and then go to the state fair after that and show their animals there.”

But the pandemic has also led to the cancellation of most fairs in the state of Virginia this year, including the state fair.

“So this is something that has been really hard on the youth in this area,” Estes said.

It has also been a strain on Five County Fair Inc., which is used to having the revenue relevant to the current year’s fair to help finance the one for next year.

“We did not have that income this year, because we normally would sell ads in our premium book, and we did not elect to sell any this year because the businesses, some were closed, didn’t know when they could open,” Estes said. “So we just deferred from that, and like I say, we’re going to try for another year.”

He said usually the fair’s revenue for the year is around $40,000, but the expenses are significant.

“It’s different each year, of course, naturally,” he said. “We don’t know what to expect from people attending the fair, because the gate is a major area of that income there, so all of this comes into play.”

Estes sees a clear way forward for the fair, though, and does not expect finances to be an obstacle.

“I still feel like we have enough put aside that we can still start a fair for another year,” he said. “But we will have to have help as far as selling ads, sponsorships, this sort of thing.”

He noted that if the economy turns around, he and organizers feel like the people and businesses in the community who have helped them in the past will help them again.

“If it’s possible and if anybody feels like they could do more next year than they did previously, yes, we will ask, we will request that,” he said. “But even without that, I feel like we can still do a fair next year.”

Unless, he was careful to say, the virus continues.

“Everything is very uncertain, but right now, we’re looking at the positive end of it that we will be able to do it,” he said.

He and organizers will start planning again in January 2021.

And he thinks pent-up demand for the fair will lead to higher levels of attendance from the public.

“I feel like that next year, if we can get back to close to normal, that we will have a great amount of attendance,” he said. “People will look forward to it.”