By Justin Trombly/VTDigger
By this point, Robert Congdon would have normally hired half the workers he seeks every year to staff the Vermont State Fair in Rutland.
So far, the fair-runner has only about a third of his usual 30-person crew lined up for the August event.
“Traditionally, we’ve got tons of people contacting us [to work] by now,” Congdon said. “What we’re running into is, there’s not that outreach to us.”
Most of Vermont’s classic fairs are returning this year after being shut down during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. Organizers are optimistic that people will be eager to return to midway rides, agricultural contests and funnel cake.
But fair organizers like Congdon say they need the public’s help in overcoming new challenges in their recovery: Staff hiring is slower than anticipated. Longtime vendors have closed shop. And some businesses that usually display their wares in the midways aren’t coming because of product shortages.
“We have heard that there is a challenge getting any of the big equipment dealers to the fairs,” said Jackie Folsom, lobbyist for the Vermont Fairs and Field Days Association. “They don’t have any equipment to show.”
For instance, Folsom said, several fairs have told the association that United Ag and Turf — a large John Deere dealer — decided not to attend their events this year.
“You go to a fair like Addison, which is really rural, agriculture-oriented, [and] all of the sudden you’re losing a lot of your stuff on your midway because you don’t have exhibitors,” she said. “That’s a problem.”
The Champlain Valley Fair in Essex Junction — the state’s largest fair, set for late August — has had similar problems, said Tim Shea, executive director of the event’s organizing group, Champlain Valley Exposition.
Some of the pool and hot tub vendors who’d normally have displays at the fairgrounds “just can’t get the product,” Shea said. “I think you’ll see a big change there.”
Shea said the fair laid off three-quarters of its staff last June because of lost money due to the pandemic. Now, he has concerns about the labor situation too.
Staffing is also the most pressing challenge for the Caledonia County Fair, held in August, organizer Dick Lawrence said.
“We’re short people in the dairy ice cream booth; we’re short people in the grandstand; we haven’t got a commitment on pickup of trash yet, security is still light,” Lawrence said. “These are things that are concerning us at the moment.”
The organizer of the fair, held in Lyndon, said he is also about 20% short on vendors this year, though he’s confident the group can pick some up from other fairs.
Despite the worries, fair organizers are hopeful about this year’s slate of events.
Shea highlighted a common theme among organizing groups: The fairs will be back, but they’ll be a bit different.
Champlain Valley opted to book tribute bands, rather than big-ticket touring acts, for its grandstand to avoid the risk associated with large crowds. The fair will have about the same number of vendors it usually does, but some of them won’t be the same as in past years, Shea said.
According to informal data the Vermont Fairs and Field Days Association collects yearly, fairs drew an estimated 360,795 people in 2019.
There’s a belief among organizers and observers that turnout, while likely lower than in 2019, will be strong.
“I’m very optimistic,” said Lawrence, the Caledonia organizer. “Everything I hear is, people are waiting for something to do.”
State Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, who chairs the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee, said people “may have well missed the fairs and are going to be really interested in getting to them” — especially as an activity for kids.
Organizers believe that, the more people grow comfortable with in-person gatherings over the summer, the more will be likely to come to the fairs.
That’ll be important for fair groups after last year’s lost income, Shea said. “We still need to have successful fairs in 2021 and beyond, and we’re hoping the community comes out and supports us,” he said.
Congdon, in Rutland, said the fairs may give people a sense of normalcy after an abnormal year. And new moves — such as bringing back a rodeo for the first time in decades, and hosting ventriloquist Jeff Dunham — have built up plenty of excitement in the community, he said.
“We never know what we’re really going to have,” he said, pointing to shifting factors such as weather.
“But as far as what we have sensed, there is huge optimism.”