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Oxford Fair faces changing times
OXFORD — The Oxford County Fair has changed dramatically over the last 20 years, with fewer animal exhibitors, larger crowds, and non-traditional, commercial attractions.
Critics say that the fair has abandoned its agricultural roots and discouraged participation from "old-school" farmers, while supporters say that the fair is simply trying to survive in a rapidly evolving landscape.
Some exhibitors have abandoned the event, complaining of poor treatment and a lack of regard by fair organizers.
"At the small fairs, you're going to get into personality problems, plain and simple," said Commissioner Seth Bradstreet of the Department of Agriculture. "There's been a group on either side that's been fueling this thing for the wrong reasons."
Bradstreet is referring to a feud between the Oxford County Agricultural Society (OCAS) and a group of goat exhibitors who filed complaints with the state after the 2009 fair.
The goat breeders, led by Helen Ramsdell of Rams Farm in Denmark, complained of inadequate availability of pens to hold 195 goats from 20 different farms, as well as of verbal confrontations between the group and the fair's directors.
The 20 farms were missing from the fair in 2010, after the OCAS moved to eliminate the goat show from the fair altogether, says Ramsdell.
The goat show's secretary, Sally Peniuk of Baroque Acres in Harrington, MA, says that she was treated shoddily.
"A Livestock Superintendent should be helping the people who bring animals into a Fair," wrote Peniuk in a complaint to the state. "It was most obvious (and even stated to a couple of people) that she wants to get rid of the goats and if she were uncooperative enough, maybe the goats would not be back next year."
The state found that the complaints were not actionable.
"They have done nothing outside of the rules that would warrant us to get involved," said Bradstreet. " ... Nothing indicated to me that there was any animal or any individual in jeopardy of being taken care of adequately."
Bradstreet says that he feels like the problem is not beyond repair.
"There were some very, very strong personalities on both sides... I think they've done a great job of trying to come to the middle," said Bradstreet.
It seems unlikely that there will be harmony between the OCAS and the goat breeders any time soon. In 2010, Ramsdell says she received a letter informing her that all of the breed shows had been canceled, which she says demonstrates a lack of regard for farmers, and the fair's agricultural mission.
"Should they be allowed to call it an Agricultural Fair?" asked Ramsdell. "Not in my book, it's not."
Elaine Emery recently left the OCAS after having been a member since 1970. Her family was involved with the fair for five generations, ever since her great-great grandfather helped to found it in 1841. She was one of many who expressed dismay when the fair's racetrack was sold to Black Bear Entertainment, the casino investment group, without the knowledge of the OCAS membership.
Emery says that many former directors, representing decades of experience, have left the OCAS to join the membership of other area fairs. Emery is involved with fairs in Fryeburg, Windsor, and Waterford, where former OCAS vice president Bill Winslow has become a part of the Waterford Fair as well.
OCAS Spokesman Lance Bean says that the friction has been a natural side effect of the progress of the organization.
“When new people come in, other people feel they're excluded,” said Bean. “Everyone is trying to do their best. I've been going to the fair since I was five years old. I just want to see it succeed.”
Barbara Sanborn, of the Waterford Grange, has a similar story to tell. Her group has decided to stop participating in the Oxford County Fair because members didn't feel well-treated by the fair's organizers.
"We're not going to enter this year because of all the problems we had," she said. "We're not used well over here at Oxford."
At other fairs, granges are paid a fee, typically about $200, immediately after the fair. Granges at the Oxford County Fair weren't paid until mid-December.
Henry Jackson, executive director of the Harness Racing Commission (and who has family ties to the OCAS), says that fairs often struggle with cash flow.
"There are some fairs that have asked that exhibitors understand the financial situation they're in," said Jackson. "That's the first I've heard of any nonpayment by that facility."
Sanborn says her grange is withdrawing mostly because of personality conflicts between its members and OCAS Director Suzanne Grover.
"She and I don't hitch horses at all," said Sanborn. "We shouldn't be that way, I guess, but I'm too old to have to fight with somebody. ... I'm 82."
This is par for the course, says Bradstreet.
"They aren't the only fair that has this issue. ... It's a very typical discussion we have every year ... ," said Bradstreet. "We have the same issues going on at Bangor. Same at Presque Isle. I could name 10 or 12 of them."
Jim Owens, the grange master for the Maine State Grange says that he's not aware of any other fairs that delay payment to their granges.
Other fairs, says Owens, "send it out quite soon after the event ends."
Other granges recognize the issues that Sanborn has complained about, but they aren't planning to quit the Oxford Fair any time soon.
Hester Gilpatrick says that, while the West Minot Grange did feel the checks "were a little bit slow," their overall experience has been a positive one.
"I thought that we were treated fairly," said Gilpatrick. "We were very pleased that we had won something."
In the larger picture, personality problems don't seem to be keeping granges away from the fair.
The number of participating granges, which was as low as three in 1989, has gone up over the years, with a high of eight in 2009, and seven in 2010. This increase has not been matched by other state fairs, says Owens.
One group that's recently re-entered the fair is the Norway Grange, which took part in 2009 and 2010 after a hiatus of over 10 years.
The slow payment, says Secretary Ethel Lacourse, was not a big inconvenience for her.
"We didn't have a panic with it," she said. "It didn't bother me one bit."
Critics of the OCAS say that the fair needs more animals, but OCAS organizers don't view this as a necessity for adequate agricultural education.
The number of animals at the Oxford County Fair has indeed gone down, by about half, over the last 20 years. Fair records show that the number of animals at the fair was 1,382 in 1989, as compared to just 538 animals in 2009, and 753 in 2010 (the 2010 bounce is largely due to the addition of 164 rabbit cages).
Ramsdell says that this doesn't allow for public education.
"If you have one or two goats there, you don't learn anything about the milking, about the breeding, about the cheese-making, and all the different breeds," said Ramsdell.
She says that only by having a group of knowledgeable people demonstrating and talking about the various aspects of the goat-farming industry can fair-goers be educated about goats, an integral part of the fair's mission.
"You don't have the contact with the goat breeders, who can really teach people about the animals," she said, "and there's really so much to it."
Losing mass access to the fair also hurts the breeders, says Ramsdell.
"They have the opportunity to develop contacts with each other," she said. "They learn from each other."
A matter of character
Sanborn says that the character of the fair has changed.
"We loved it, but now it's just all business, all commercial now," she said.
The charge that the fair has lost its rustic appeal is not a new one.
Oxford Fair has been aggressive in attempting to blend its traditional agricultural mission with mainstream events designed to draw in more attendees.
In recent years, traditional fair fare such as livestock, crops, and hand-crafted items have been joined by trapezists, a demolition derby, helicopter rides, and a country music contest.
"I open the paper, and I see they're shooting people out of cannons. They're doing bull-riding. That's not agriculture," said Ramsdell.
Bean says that the commercialization of the fair has been an effort to keep the event alive in a changing world.
“If you stay stale and stagnant, you're not going to make it,” said Bean. “You've got to put on a show to get people to turn out. Doing the same thing over and over is not going to make it.”
“It's not easy running a fair these days,” said Bean. “You're right on the edge at all times. We're trying to make this a viable entity.”
The Oxford County Fair's commercial approach may not be pleasing to traditionalists, but it has drawn praise from at least one trained state evaluator.
Ann-Michele Ames rated the Oxford County 2010 Fair on behalf of the State Department of Agriculture.
While rating the fair's "Agricultural Emphasis," Ames gave the Oxford Fair a perfect score of 4, or "very good," for striking a good balance between agricultural and commercial exhibits.
The rating concerns the "balance of exhibits shows, and attempt to emphasize agricultural predominance in the quality of farm-related exhibits, including livestock, traditional or modern production methods, and rural home craft."
Different farms, different farmers
Injecting commercialism into a traditional county fair may help keep the fairs solvent, but in order to continue to accomplish their agricultural mission, fairs may need to find a better way to connect with a new breed of farmers.
Between 1960 and 2003, the number of farmers in the US shrank from 15 million to about two million.
It might be tempting to link the decline in animal numbers to a decline in the number of farms, but that turns out not to be the case.
These days, farms are not in decline. Not anymore.
Over the last 20 years, while the number of animals on display at the Oxford County Fair was cut in half, the number of farms in Maine has skyrocketed, reversing a century-long trend that had many predicting the end of farming.
In 1992, Oxford County had just 346 farms. By 2007, the number of farms had ballooned to 545, mirroring statewide statistics.
Owens says that a decline in grange membership has leveled off.
"I think things are staying pretty steady now," said Owens. "They're not slipping, or going downhill."
More farms isn't leading to more animals at the fair, and the reason may be that the farms of today are not the farms of 50 years ago.
"Some kinds of agriculture are declining, but we have other kinds coming in to take [their] place," said Owens.
In 1992, the average farm in Oxford County was 183 acres. In 2007, that number had gone down to just 126 acres. By the time the next agricultural census is published, it will be smaller still.
The farmers themselves are different, too. They tend to specialize in a particular niche market, rather than make a living from a spectrum of traditional farm products.
Between 2002 and 2007, even as the number of farms increased, the number of full-time farmers in Oxford County decreased, from 260 to 242.
Most farmers in Oxford County these days make a pittance.
Of Oxford County's 545 farms, more than half, or 294, show sales of under $2,500. Only 20 farms show sales of over $100,000, and only seven of those take in over $500,000.
Getting the individuals who make up the vibrant new farming culture to participate in agricultural fairs is a challenge, but it may be the only way for the fairs, including Oxford, to remain relevant.