Alberta’s agriculture societies still struggling to stay afloat

Some are hosting smaller events but ones that bring in big crowds and dollars are off the table

Alberta’s ag societies are in the same sinking ship they’ve been in since the pandemic started — but they’re doing whatever they can to stay afloat.

“The situation is not a whole lot better, but our ag societies are beginning to adapt to be able to provide some programming and events for the public to enjoy in their own communities,” said Tim Carson, chief executive officer of the Alberta Association of Agricultural Societies.

“Due to the current restrictions, none of these things are really financially viable. They’re just doing it because that’s what they do — continue to look for ways to support their communities.”

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At Westerner Park in Red Deer, organizers were able to hold some physically distanced events.

“For us, we’ve focused on running what we can within the limits of COVID — drive-in concerts, drive-in movies, show and shines, and other various outdoor events,” said chief executive officer Mike Olesen.

“That was all in the spirit of staying relevant and giving the community options if they choose. We’re just really making sure something is happening around here when we can… (but) it’s definitely challenging.”

While smaller events like the Westerner Dairy Showcase will likely go ahead (barring any changes to Alberta Health Services guidelines), others have been cancelled outright, including the Canadian Finals Rodeo and Agri-Trade. The latter first said it was going ahead before cancelling last month.

“We held in there as long as we could and did everything possible to run the show in a safe way,” said Olesen. “But as we got closer and closer, a number of issues were evident… it got to a tipping point where the show just wasn’t going to be what people would expect.”

Other ag societies are facing the same hurdles.

The Lloydminster Agricultural Exhibition Association, located on the Saskatchewan side of the border, is only able to have 30 people indoors, save for auction sales and trade shows, which can have 150 people in each pavilion.

“That’s been a glimmer of hope for us,” said general manager Jenelle Saskiw. “We’re actually able to have our Stockade Roundup, and we’re pretty excited about that. It’s a few more logistics, but we’re so excited to finally have an event. This will be our first official big event of 2020 — truthfully, our only event of 2020.

“Right now, it just feels good to finally be able to do something. It feels like some kind of normalcy is returning.”

But it won’t put a dent in their losses this year.

“When you’re used to having events where you see thousands of people coming through the door, you realize that you’re not going to be making any kind of money with 150 people there,” said Saskiw, adding that the Lloyd Ex has lost 90 per cent of its revenue.

“With our fixed costs at about $125,000 a month, it doesn’t take long to do the math to realize that this isn’t a sustainable way to go.”

Meanwhile, Westerner Park has seen revenue losses between $8 million and $10 million so far.

“We’re forecasting an adverse impact at least through to Westerner Days. That’s what we’re scenario planning now, that our next major event will be in July 2021,” Olesen said.

“I hope I’m wrong. I’m not sure many businesses — certainly not non-profits — have savings to the degree that they can cover their losses for well over a year.”

So far, governments haven’t announced any extra funding to help ag societies, although the province accelerated the delivery of funds through the Agricultural Societies Grant Program, which helped with cash flow during the summer.

“A lot of those organizations were struggling to clean up last year’s bills, so that definitely helped,” said Carson. “But there hasn’t been any new funding programs specifically for ag societies.”

Help is needed, he said.

“We continue to work with the provincial government in helping it understand that it’s not as simple as mothballing these places and letting them sit there dormant waiting for things to change,” he said.

“We’re important economic drivers in our communities, and our capital footprint, with the size of our facilities, just requires us to keep going. That comes at an expense.

“We’ve done our part. We’ve trimmed our expenses as far as we can while still maintaining a viable organization, but government support is important.”

Lloyd Ex officials have taken matters into their own hands, forming the Lloyd Ex Foundation in September. In addition to donations, it is selling name rights for some venues and producers can allocate a share of crop or livestock sales to the foundation.

“This is a response to businesses and individuals approaching us to ask how they can help,” said Saskiw. “It’s just a really creative way to form this partnership that will help us out and ensure that we remain in existence for another century.”

That’s really what’s at stake for Lloyd Ex, she added.

“No business can survive losing 90 per cent of its revenue,” she said. “This is a very aggressive approach to take, but we know that it’s necessary for the future survival of Lloyd Ex.”

And while it’s too soon to say just how many of Alberta’s ag societies are in the same boat, some will not survive until next year, said Carson.

“If the lockdown continues in the way that it is and we’re not able to have our groups gather people in numbers that make sense, there is a real opportunity for casualties,” he said. “Without the opportunity to generate revenue on your own, I’m just not sure what the outcome will be.”

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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