Cut costs and carry on: Ag societies caught in a web of uncertainty due to COVID

Most revenues come from events that aren’t taking place while the bills keep rolling in

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When COVID-19 hit, Strathmore and District Ag Society went into total shutdown.

“We were just kind of reeling at first. We laid off all the staff, cancelled events, cancelled Strathmore Stampede, cancelled cowboy concerts,” said Ryan Schmidt, the society’s general manager and CEO.

“Everything looked kind of black and dark. You can’t see where to go.”

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It was the situation that pretty much all of the province’s nearly 300 ag societies faced a year ago. In a flash, the pandemic forced an end to fairs and rodeos, community get-togethers and concerts, sporting events and fundraisers, and a host of other events, mostly put on by tens of thousands of volunteers.

Ag societies come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, and their ability to absorb the abrupt loss of revenue varies, too.

The province recently announced that ag societies would receive their base grant of $17,500 apiece and that their operating grant, which is tied to their events and revenues, would be based on their five-year funding average.

But the grants only cover about a third of the revenue that has been lost during the pandemic, said Tim Carson, chief executive officer of the Alberta Association of Agricultural Societies.

And that’s not enough to cover the bills, he said.

“Anybody who has any type of facilities at all has been going slowly broke as far as utility costs, insurance costs, maintenance costs,” said Carson. “All of those things continue without any opportunity to generate new revenue.”

As one of the larger operations, the Strathmore ag society has a bunch of facilities — an outdoor hockey rink, a baseball complex with four diamonds, a 120-site campground, a rodeo arena and two practice arenas.

“In a normal year, we have baseball leagues playing, we have multiple rodeos, the outdoor rink gets used by whoever, and we have five rental buildings we use to provide space for other non-profits who need reasonably priced halls to run their activities,” said Schmidt.

The flagship event is the Strathmore Stampede, held during the August long weekend. The society also hosts a Celebration of Lights at Christmas and Stampede Fright Night at Halloween.

The Strathmore Stampede attracts as much as 40,000 people over four days. photo: Supplied

The loss of all those revenues while the bills kept on coming was a bleak situation, but the society managed to find a way through. Government supports helped, as did the wage subsidy that allowed some staff to be hired back.

“We got very creative about how we were going to approach things going forward,” said Schmidt.

Although large events were off the table, Alberta Health Services guidelines allowed up to 200 people if proper protocols could be followed. So the society hosted some socially distanced rodeo events for the Foothills Cowboy Association, and some barrel racing events. It also hosted a bull riding jackpot with 100 guests, which was sponsored by local businesses.

“It’s incredible the amount of volunteer and sponsor support that came out from the community once we were able to start on these smaller events,” said Schmidt.

But then the second wave — and the second lockdown — arrived in fall and the society hasn’t been able to rent out any of its buildings since November.

The Fairview Ag Society — run entirely by volunteers — has also been scrambling. The rodeo was cancelled and the equine committee, which includes riders from all over the Peace Country, cancelled barrel racing, gymkhana and pole bending. Society volunteers were able to hold farmers’ markets (at 25 per cent capacity) last year. The Pioneer Museum was able to stay open thanks to a small heritage grant, and the general public showed up in larger numbers than usual, said society president Kamie Currie.

But the fundraising casino was also cancelled in 2020 and the group hasn’t been able to fundraise nor, of course, seek sponsorship for events that never took place.

Currie doesn’t know if the society will be able to host the rodeo (normally held the third week in July) this summer.

“It’s too soon to know. There are some really big costs associated with it, and those numbers don’t change,” she said.

Much of the rodeo’s costs are covered by a pre-Canada Day event, which features fireworks, two dances and beer gardens at the rodeo grounds.

But that looks like a no-go for the second straight year.

“That’s what sustains it. It’s not the spectators,” said Currie. “If we can’t have those things, we’re not going to hold a rodeo. It’s very much up in the air.

“It makes it difficult to plan. At this point, we don’t know.”

Ditto for the Strathmore Stampede.

“The health experts aren’t going to be able to tell you how many people you can have until real-time data is available, probably a month before your event,” said Schmidt. “But the Strathmore Stampede takes six months to plan.

“So how do you approach a season of events coming up, such that you’re flexible enough that you can have events that work in either scenario, when you can have only 200 people or you might have a full Strathmore Stampede?”

That wreaks havoc with the budgeting process, but that’s the secondary challenge.

“I think we’ve done a decent job of that,” he said. “But the biggest uncertainty when you’re planning large events like we are is how do you do that when the health experts aren’t going to give you an answer until it’s too late?”

All you can do is be “very conservative” with budgeting, postpone big capital projects, and find ways to cut operations and maintenance cost wherever you can,” said Schmidt.

“You’ve got to be doing everything on a shoestring because you’ve got to plan for the worst,” he said. “We planned and budgeted for the worst-case scenario, so we know we can survive the year… We’re going to be OK. I’m thankful for the supports that have been in place.”

That pretty much sums it up for ag societies across the province, said Carson.

“They’re managing. But they won’t manage for long,” he said.

About the author

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Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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