State earmarks $4M to ease ag fairs’ losses due to COVID-19

  • A view of Rockwell Amusements midway at sunset at the Three County Fair.  GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 12/19/2021 7:51:03 PM
Modified: 12/19/2021 7:50:49 PM

State Rep. Natalie Blais announced the establishment of a $4 million program intended to cover some of the financial losses incurred by the state’s agricultural fairs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The funding, the result of amendments sponsored by Blais, D-Sunderland, and Sen. Joan Lovely, D-Salem, was included in a $4 billion spending bill using American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and fiscal year 2021 surplus funds — H.4269 An Act Relative to Immediate COVID-19 Recovery Needs. The bill was passed by the Legislature last week and signed into law by Gov. Charlie Baker on Dec. 13.

Blais said she is currently in discussions with the state Department of Agricultural Resources about a distribution method and the way “funding will be dispersed still has yet to be determined.”

“The financial losses that many of our agricultural fairs accrued during the COVID-19 pandemic were significant and have threatened their long-term viability,” Blais said. “Steeped in history, these fairs are a tremendous asset to the commonwealth, not only acting as an economic engine but also as a unique place for visitors to learn about the importance of our local food systems.”

Across the state, more than 40 fairs are held annually, with the first being held in late May and the last commencing the first week in October, according to Blais. All agricultural fairs were canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic. The fairs reported significant losses due to year-round operating and maintenance expenses that had to be paid even if the fairs did not occur.

Blais led the effort to create the recovery fund for fairs, collaborating with the Massachusetts Farm Bureau and the Massachusetts Agricultural Fair Association to host a legislative briefing in October on the importance of agricultural fairs, and highlighting the financial impacts of COVID-19 and outstanding infrastructure challenges.

“I am proud to have worked alongside the agricultural fairs in the 1st Franklin District to lay the groundwork in the State House for this monumental investment,” Blais said. “This would not have been possible without their involvement and the broad support of legislators and stakeholders statewide.”

While small fairs reported losses in the tens of thousands of dollars, larger fairs estimated losses in the millions.

“Our revenues in 2019 were $1,549,941 and our revenue in 2020, due to COVID, the shutdowns and restrictions, was $341,296, more than a $1.2 million difference, but our net loss with expenses saved was $514,662 in 2020,” James Przypek, general manager of Northampton’s Three County Fair, wrote in an email.

Michael Nelson, president of the Franklin County Fair in Greenfield, said the gross revenue difference from 2019 to 2020 was $423,000. Its net profit loss was around $20,000.

Fair organizers said that while this funding will be helpful, the $4 million won’t be enough to help every fair in Massachusetts fully recover. Nelson said that, realistically, given the amount of money allotted to fairs statewide, he is expecting around $100,000 to go toward the Franklin County Fair, whereas funding in the realm of $200,000 is what would have been ideal.

“Could we use more money? Absolutely. We could always use more money,” Nelson said, noting that his facility is 150 years old and the funding is critical to the fairgrounds’ long-term viability and preservation. “We could easily spend a million dollars tomorrow on capital repairs.”

Regardless, those who run the fairs showed gratitude to receive any funding at all.

“Unfortunately, the amount that passed does not meet the shortfalls that all of the fairs in Massachusetts suffered in 2020 and into 2021, but every bit of assistance is much-needed help,” Przypek wrote.

“In any case,” Nelson said, “it’ll be a win for the fair.” He emphasized his thanks to Blais for her “tireless support of the agricultural and tourism industries in Franklin County.”

Przypek also thanked state Sen. Jo Comerford and state Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, both Northampton Democrats, who “spoke up for our fair to be recognized as one that suffered tremendous hardship due to the business shutdowns and restrictions.”

“We are extremely appreciative of their advocacy and the attentive work championed by Rep. Natalie Blais, who has been an outspoken leader for the agricultural fair industry,” he added. He said fairs have largely slipped through the cracks of eligibility for other federal and state COVID-19 relief sources.

“This funding represents a true commitment by Massachusetts to invest in the future of agriculture,” said Jessica O’Neill, Heath Fair president. “As we prepare for the next 100 years of the Heath Fair, these funds feel like the wind in the sails that we needed. We appreciate all of the advocacy that went into getting this funding passed.”


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