It’s the most wonderful time of the year for many in Wisconsin as the summer fair season is at its peak with many of the state’s 76 county and district fairs still ahead.  Reports we have seen from already completed fairs show attendance is up as July was a cooler and drier month, encouraging visitors to attend their local fair.

        For Bob Williams, longtime Fairs Coordinator with the Wisconsin Association of Fairs, that’s not unexpected as the fairs adapt to changes in society.  At last week’s Jackson County Fair in Black River Falls, we caught up with Williams to get an update on the fairs.  He told us while the fairs have modernized both their programs and facilities, “the fairs are still a social event with mostly friendly competition for both Junior and Open class exhibitors.”  

         Williams said that after some erratic years of state support to help the 76 fairs that receive state aid, that situation has stabilized somewhat.  For 2013 and 2014, the fairs will receive $400,000 in state aid thanks to fair supporters like “State Senator Sheila Harsdorf who worked with the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee to get those funds in the state budget with the support of the governor,” Williams explained. 

           The history of state support for the fairs began back in 1858 when the state said it would match up to $100 if fair organizers could raise that much money to put on a fair.  Things were relatively quiet and consistent for many years until budgets became tighter and alternative financing streams had to be found.  For most fairs, the state funding cutbacks brought in the concept of  “finding sponsors for anything that was sponsorable at the fair” Williams said.

          The need for sponsors became most necessary in the 1990s.  Williams explained that, “in 1990 state aid to fairs went up to $650,000 a year because of revenue from pari-mutuel betting, like dog tracks, and the lottery.”  That lasted for about three or four years until state voters decided that all lottery proceeds should go for property tax relief.  According to Williams, that meant, “No more money for the county fairs from the state.”  But the Joint Finance Committee stepped up again and authorized $250,00 in state aids but only for Junior exhibitors.  After two years, the committee increased the amount to $350,000 so Open class exhibitors could also again receive state supported premiums.

      With funding somewhat stabilized the fairs are now focusing on a couple of other issues, Williams, said, to increase attendance.  One of the priorities of fairs across the country is the education of non-farm people to modern agriculture.  He told us that “three quarters of the fairs in the state now have an Ag Ventures or Ag Education display and many of our fairs have won national awards for their programs.”

      That initiative came from the IAFE (international Association of Fairs and Expositions) which sees the need for city people to have a better understanding of agriculture and the exhibits at the fairs.

      Another emphasis of the local fairs is education about E Coli and what can cause an outbreak.  All fairs are now encouraged to hang signs, especially in the barns and petting zoos, that tell people about the hazards of possible E Coli outbreaks.  Williams said, “a lot of people will go to the barns, pet the animals and then go to the food stands for a hot dog without stopping to wash their hands.  That’s why we now have hand sanitizing stations around the fairgrounds.”

       Just as funding for the fairs has changed over the years, so have activities and exhibits.  Williams said, “When I started working with the fairs in 1981, there were eight wineries in the state.  Now there are about 60 and they want to exhibit at their local fairs. Last year in Pierce county there were 120 entries in the wine judging competition.”  He added that wine has become so popular, state statutes had to be changed to allow wine as well as beer sales at the fairs and still allow those fairs to receive state aid.

       But the project Williams said is growing the fastest is photography.  In the past few years it has increased threefold and premiums have also tripled to between 70 and 80 thousand dollars across the state.  By comparison he said, “dairy premiums are now at about $65,000”.  Another growth area he said is in quilting as many fairs are having trouble finding enough space to exhibit all the quilts.  On the other side, he said he has seen a big dropoff in the number of cooking and clothing displays at the fairs in both Junior and Open classes.

     While the road has been bumpy at times over the years for Wisconsin’s county and district fairs financially, times have been much tougher in other states.  When the economic crisis hit, fairs in Pennsylvania lost millions of dollars in state aid and many fairs had to shut down until they could find alternative funding, again, mainly from sponsorships. Michigan fairs lost their $3 million a year in state aid, California, which is still deep in the red financially, pulled their $22 million a year in state aid to fairs and even Illinois had to eliminate its $9 million a year in state aid because like all those states which depended on revenue from pari-mutuel betting, gamblers began going to the casinos rather than the race tracks.