The agricultural fairs that can be found in nearly every county in Illinois each summer bring money into the local and state economies and provide agricultural education and a sense of unity in communities and families, according to a study assessing their impact. Alex Norr, a former graduate student in the University of Illinois Department of Urban and Regional Planning, worked with U. of I. Extension on the study, “Economic Impact of Illinois Agricultural Fairs,” completed earlier this year. Norr talked about the impact of fairs and their future with News Bureau arts and humanities editor Jodi Heckel.
How do county fairs contribute to their surrounding communities?
County fairs play a significant part in their local economies – especially in more rural areas – and the state economy. The main purpose of this study was to understand the economic impact that fair attendees traveling to, from and around the fair had on the host community and the state as a whole. We estimate that approximately $80 million was spent within the local communities in 2014 on things such as fuel, food, lodging, goods and services. It is important to point out that this does not include money spent inside the fairgrounds or on fair activities. That $80 million in ancillary sales translates to an economic impact of $90 million for the state. The value added is the result of money turning over as it moves along the supply chain of a given good or service. To break that down geographically, Illinois county fairs generate an estimated economic impact of $44 million in the northern part of the state, $17 million in the central part, and $12 million in the southern part. In addition, we estimate that the associated economic impact supports over 1,000 non-fair-related jobs.
We also estimated the total fair revenue to be approximately $90 million dollars. Although we didn’t include these expenditures in our economic models, fair officials and local vendors estimate that about 20 percent of fair revenue is spent and cycled through the local communities.
In an effort to better understand the community and social benefits of county fairs, I conducted interviews with local fair board members, local fair sponsors and fair participants across the state. I found that the local community benefits because the fair acts a catalyst for continuing local traditions, increasing unity within the community and providing agriculture education.
What is the state’s investment in fairs?
Illinois county agriculture fairs are designated by state statute and funded in part by the Illinois Department of Agriculture. The state appropriates about $5.1 million through the Illinois Department of Agriculture for the county fairs and related activities, which include programs like 4-H, FFA, non-agriculture fairs and county agriculture fairs.
These funds are primarily used for fair premiums (modest cash winnings given to those who place in their respective shows) and the upkeep or rehabilitation of the fairgrounds and fair facilities. This money is not simply distributed equally; each of the 104 county fairs across Illinois must apply for reimbursement based on its unique situation. With the state budget declining, fairs have had to get increasingly creative in order to keep their gates open each year.
What other challenges are county fairs facing, in addition to declining state funding?
Though fairs are largely unique, their challenges are shared across the state. Through my interviews and fair visits, several themes became apparent. Perhaps the primary concern is decreasing participation and shifting interests. This does not necessarily mean that fairs are getting smaller. For example, we see a decline in participation in the traditional livestock shows but an increase in attendance at events like demolition derbies, tractor pulls and concerts. We also see attendance trends changing. Historically, individuals may have attended the fair several times throughout its duration. Today we typically see an increase in one-day visits and a decrease in repeat attendance.
The cost associated with these changes is significant. Main attractions, such as concerts, derbies and tractor pulls, are far more expensive than events we saw at the fair in years past.
Collectively, fairs are faced with a shifting fair culture and increased costs. To cope with these challenges, fairs are continually trying to bring in attractions and events that provide entertainment for the entire community while still preserving their agricultural heritage and promoting agriculture in Illinois.
Are fairs making changes in response to new agricultural trends or changing interests of young people?
Agriculture in Illinois is shifting, and that is reflected in the local county fairs. We see fairs catering to more small-scale or backyard farmers by providing education on raising farm animals or growing produce. Fairs have seen an increase in small-animal and poultry exhibitors in recent years. We also see the 4-H adding new programs related to an array of topics such as science, astronomy and robotics.
Editor’s notes: To reach Alex Norr, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here for a copy of the report, “Economic Impact of Illinois Agricultural Fairs.”