The buildings are empty. The crowds are gone.
Alberta’s ag societies are facing a summer like no other — and some may not survive it.
“Our groups are based on gathering people, and they’re not able to do any of that, which is a big concern,” said Tim Carson, chief executive officer of the Alberta Association of Agricultural Societies.
“It’s where they generate the bulk of their revenue. So they’ve really had to reach deep into their creative core to figure out ways to stay engaged with their community.”
The pause button has been pressed on the fairs, rodeos, and other summer events at community halls and exhibition grounds. Ag societies are doing what they can — hosting drive-in movies and markets, holding virtual concerts and shows — but the situation is very difficult.
“There’s nobody using these facilities. There’s been absolutely no activity at the hall,” said Humphrey Banack, treasurer of the Round Hill Ag Society near Camrose. “We’re not seeing any facility use for our community, and that’s our reason for being — to provide a space for people to get together and gather in.”
But the struggles don’t end there. Banack suspects that it will be a long while before people feel safe coming together again.
“That’s where I see the bigger challenge — how do we get our community to gather again?” he said.
“Things have changed immensely. How will that change the social fabric of rural Alberta? We always say we have strong, vibrant rural communities, but will this do it in? Will people gather like that again?
“Those are questions that we’re going to start working our way through to try to get some pulse back in our community buildings.”
But some may never recover financially.
“There’s been no specific support for this type of organization in Canada as yet,” said Carson. “I think there will be casualties, but I don’t know what they’ll look like.”
At the Round Hill Ag Society, event bookings account for one-third of it annual operating budget, while another third comes from fundraising events (which have also been cancelled). The final third comes from grant funding.
“There’s been virtually no income,” said Banack, adding that the income loss is balanced by some reduction in expenses. “Two-thirds of our income is drying up here. That’s going to be a real challenge.”
Round Hill has put some money away over the years — a nest egg earmarked for renovations that won’t be able to happen now.
“For any ag societies that do have a nest egg, it’s going to cut into the capital projects they can do for the next number of years,” he said.
And for the ones that don’t have a nest egg, “it’s going to be very tough times.”
The risk is even greater for larger agricultural societies, Carson added.
“The primary ag societies — 284 across the rural communities — own and operate over 700 facilities,” he said. “Those facilities — regardless of whether or not someone is using them — still maintain a level of expense. It’s those organizations that are at the greatest risk.”
Red Deer’s Westerner Park is feeling the effects.
“Given our size and how many facilities we have, it’s been difficult,” said chief executive officer Mike Olesen. “We have a high level of fixed costs just to keep the facility up to a standard that it will be ready when we are able to open up again.
“We’re a non-profit, but we still have a business component to us. We still need to survive and take care of the vast facilities that we have.”
Westerner Park normally has upwards of 500 staff in summer. Over 90 per cent have been temporarily laid off, but with event cancellations, the outlook heading into the fall is a loss of about $9 million.
“Ag societies are an extremely strong economic driver in a region. We bring a lot of things to a community,” he said.
“For central Alberta, we represent well over $100 million in economic impact, and that’s critical, especially at this time.”
But Olesen is optimistic about the future of Westerner Park and the role of ag societies in a post-pandemic world.
“It’s a cliché, but you never waste a crisis to teach you about your business,” he said. “It’s really given us a chance to stop and reflect on how we’re operating and where we need to improve. We finally have an opportunity to do that, so there is a silver lining.”
Right now, Westerner Park officials are looking to the fall, working closely with Alberta Health Services to make sure they’re up and running when they get the go-ahead. So far, the Canadian Finals Rodeo, scheduled to run Nov. 3-8, has been cancelled, while the fate of AgriTrade is still up in the air for this year.
“Our goal is, no matter what, AgriTrade will run in some form or fashion,” he said. “We’re going to do everything we can to run it, but within safe guidelines so that attendees in the community are comfortable.”
That’s the role Banack sees for ag societies following the pandemic — “providing that safe space that people are comfortable coming out to.”
But when that might happen is anyone’s guess.
“How long will it be until people feel comfortable coming back out into public?” he asked.
“Can you imagine a lineup for supper, where people are standing six feet apart? That’s where half the visiting of the evening is done — standing in line for the bar or for the supper table. So what will we need to do as an organization to provide that safety level they’re going to expect?”
Despite these challenges, Carson believes Alberta’s ag societies will play a central role in bringing communities together again.
“After the isolation that we’ve had to endure, it’s going to take those trusted sources that are close to home to start to feel comfortable again,” he said.
“I think that the consumer confidence that people are going to require in order to attend major events is going to start at the grassroots level. It’s going to start with the community barbecue or the community jamboree.
“And agricultural societies can provide that trusted, safe environment that people can once again gather in.”