A year to take the fair online—and back off again
Fairs have been around for more than a century in the Fraser Valley. Many had to evolve to get past COVID-19. This year, they are making their comeback. As always, the fair must go on. Part two of a three-part series.
Nathan Hertgers sat alone on a folding chair in the back of an antique yellow GMC, adorned in a velvet crown and cape. It wasn’t his first time as Agassiz’s Corn King. But this win—like everything else in 2020—was a little different.
Back in 2013, when Hertgers won his first title for his superior forage corn, he had arrived at the Agassiz Fall Fair and Corn Festival in the community’s biggest parade of the year. He stood on stage during the opening ceremonies and in front of family, friends, neighbours, and community members, and received his crown from deposed king Holger Schwichtenberg.
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Last year, however, there were no crowds of eager fair-goers watching his coronation with eager anticipation. Hertgers doffed his baseball cap to receive his crown from Victoria Brookes, president of the Agassiz Agricultural and Horticultural Association. He stood beside third-place winner Schwichtenberg and runner-up John Hoogendoorn for a photo-op. Then Bunk Mackay, in the cab of a pickup dating back to the first corn festival in the early 1950s, drove Hertgers through the streets of Agassiz in a one-man parade.
“It was a small effort compared to what we usually do,” Brookes said. “But it’s a long-time tradition, the corn contest. And so I think every little bit helped with people’s mental health.”
The COVID-19 pandemic shut down events of all kinds, after arriving abruptly in the consciousness of British Columbians last March. The Fraser Valley’s fairs were no exception, and organizers had precious few months to decide what to do. For Brookes, and others with the Agassiz Fall Fair, there was a hope the pandemic would calm down by the fair’s mid-September due date. When it didn’t, they opted to “postpone” the fair instead, offering only a colouring contest, the traditional chicken-and-corn barbecue, and the Corn King crowning. (The fair hasn’t been officially cancelled since 1948, when flood waters covered most of Agassiz.)
“It was difficult because at times we weren’t exactly sure what the guidelines meant to us,” Brookes said. “We had people saying ‘Well, you’re still going to do this, aren’t you?’ And we said, ‘We would like to, but we just have to wait and see what the guidelines are.’”
Other fairs in the Fraser Valley faced the same challenges, and each adapted in their own way. The Abbotsford AgriFair switched to a drive-thru event. The Aldergrove Fair went largely online with a live-streamed opening ceremony. The Chilliwack Fair, which was set to celebrate its 148th anniversary, also decided to go virtual.
“We are the second oldest fair in BC, and that was something we couldn’t give up on,” Nicole Williams, the manager of the Chilliwack Fair, said. “We honestly had no idea what to expect, and that was the beauty of it. If we could get even a handful of people to start something new, continue a tradition, pick up a new skill and feel legitimate accomplishment, then I believe it would have been a success. What did we have to lose?”
While some Chilliwack Fair activities happened as drive-thru events, like the opening ceremonies, most took place online. Exhibitors submitted photos or videos of their animals, produce, baking, and other handiwork and winners were shared online throughout the fair weekend. Although the concept was simple, the execution was not. The fair had to develop a new computer system using website pug-ins, digital storage spaces, and old-fashioned spreadsheets to get the exhibitions online. Even when that was sorted, dodgy internet meant fair organizers had to run around looking for better connections to upload the winning videos on time.
But, Williams said, it was all worth it.
“We don’t typically get all the ‘thank yous’ during a regular fair. Sometimes there’s more of a focus on what we can improve on. We fuel ourselves with the smiles on the faces of families when they are here. Having said all that, with the virtual fair, the sincere and genuine ‘thank yous’ of those who experienced it made us feel great about what we had put together,” she said. “It made every late night uploading videos and early morning website update completely worth every second.”
This year, the fair organizers are at it again, even though they are trying to do in one month what normally takes half a year. Some fairs in BC have decided not to go ahead because of that. But not those in the Fraser Valley. The Chilliwack Fair kicked off in earnest on Friday, Aug. 6. The Agassiz Fall Fair will return in September. The road to making this happen has not been easy.
“It’s generally the time of year where sleep will happen when it’s absolutely necessary,” Williams wrote in an email response to several questions from The Current. (The email was sent after midnight.) But she said the community that brings a fair to life makes the lack of sleep bearable. “It is absolutely energizing to be able to pick up the phone, call a friend that has been built directly through the years of planning the fair to see if we can solve a problem—and finding a solution.
“We are still working to dot the I’s and cross the T’s, but it is coming together, as a community! It sounds so cliché, but it is absolutely the truth.”
Click to read part one and three of this series: “Through wars, floods, and COVID: the fair must go on” and “One day at the fair.”