Queen's Park is plowing $5 million into helping Ontario's agricultural societies survive after the COVID-19 pandemic cancelled fall fairs, clobbering their bottom lines.
Agriculture Minister Ernie Hardeman (PC-Oxford) announced the funding, part of last Thursday's provincial budget, at a Western Fair District news conference Monday.
“Ontario’s agricultural and horticulture societies are vital to our rural communities,” Hardeman said. “The rich traditions of fall fairs, exhibitions and activities not only bring communities together, but also support the local economies in rural Ontario.”
He said the money will help societies “continue operations during these difficult times and relieve some of the burden of being unable to run the fairs.”
Fall fairs provide the bulk of income for many agricultural societies, Hardeman said, adding the revenue loss from COVID cancellations left many fairs at risk of closing permanently.
He said it’s key to preserve an “important part of Ontario’s rural landscape” that helps educate people about the role of farmers.
“(This funding) will give our societies the assistance needed to recover from the financial hardships caused by the pandemic,” said Vince Brennan, manager of the 200-plus member Ontario Association of Agricultural Societies (OAAS).
How funding will be doled out has yet to be finalized, but agricultural and horticulture societies must demonstrate “financial hardship” to qualify.
“This funding will help assist the agricultural societies and their fairs to continue to provide an opportunity for families and communities to reconnect, as well as showcase, promote and build awareness of modern agriculture, food production, and a rural way of life,” Brennan said.
The new funding follows changes to a $1-million provincial grant program supporting agricultural societies. In the past, societies had to host an annual fall fair to qualify; that requirement was removed for this year.
There are more than 200 fall fairs in Ontario. Many agricultural societies are non-profits.
Fall fairs generate more than $700 million a year in economic activity in Ontario, with spinoff benefits to other local businesses, the OAAS says.
About 60 per cent of OAAS fairs were established before 1867.
This summer, the Canadian Association of Fairs and Exhibitions projected one in 10 fairs could be gone for good without financial help.
“We hope to continue to push forward the message of ag societies well into the future,” Reg Ash, Western Fair’s chief executive, said at Monday's announcement.
While Hardeman acknowledged struggling fall fairs “may not be the squeakiest wheel,” he said they “need to keep it greased” so they don’t disappear permanently.
The $5 million was included in Finance Minister Rod Phillips' record-setting $187-billion mid-pandemic spending plan, announced last Thursday, which projects a $38.5-billion deficit.
The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada
Max Martin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press