Summer may seem like a long way off but across the province, tens of thousands of volunteers are gearing up for the annual frenzy of festivals and summer events.
“All indications from our members are that they’re prepared, ready to go, and do what they normally do for their communities in 2018,” said Tim Carson, chief executive officer of the Alberta Association of Agricultural Societies. “There’s obviously some questions around the upcoming provincial budget and whether or not they’ll continue to find the support that they’ve enjoyed for many decades.”
Last year, a review of government spending resulted in an agonizingly long delay before the province approved an $8.67-million grant for ag societies. Funds that normally flowed in early summer didn’t receive official approval until September. That money supports events put on by the province’s 284 primary ag societies, and also provides operating funds for a wide range of community facilities.
“We have a study from 2009 that shows our primary ag societies generate more than $44 million in revenues annually,” said Carson. “The investment of the $8.67 million into these community groups is multiplied tremendously, not to mention the value these organizations bring to their communities.
“The last numbers that we have are that more than 65,000 volunteers are involved and they invest more than 640,000 hours annually. It’s much bigger than most people understand.”
It’s also changing — in a good way.
The association held its annual convention last month, and once again there were some very positive signs.
“We’re watching the age demographics of members, particularly the ones that are coming to our conventions, and the average age is decreasing steadily,” said Carson. “We’re seeing that changing of the guard, if you will.”
The convention, like the societies themselves, offers a whirlwind of activities with a host of diverse how-to sessions on topics such as business plans and financial management; how to communicate effectively with volunteers; reducing energy costs (an item that has taken on new-found importance because of carbon taxes); employing cyber security; and even a session on how to bring millennials into a volunteer organization.
The latter is something that many ag societies in the province are already doing well, said Carson.
“We’re seeing there is an influx of younger people and young families who are getting involved in their communities and finding that value of community,” he said.
There’s a counterintuitive factor at play in this regard.
The media — both the traditional version and social media — are full of stories about how people are spending way too much time on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. But many young people, especially young families, are becoming active in ag societies because they offer a chance to interact with people face to face, said Carson.
“The opportunity to be engaged with your neighbour is one of the vital roles that our ag societies provide,” he said. “It’s that touchpoint, that catalyst for community engagement and understanding that there is a greater role for us to play not only in our communities, but in society in general.”
And younger people are not only lending a hand but offering new ideas on how to freshen up fairs and other events.
“We’re seeing that transition of ag societies from where they’ve been successful in the past to where they’re going to be successful in the future,” said Carson.
A list of ag societies and upcoming events can be found at the Alberta Association of Agricultural Societies website.