County agriculture fairs are big business in North Carolina, but the COVID-19 pandemic has caused many of the events to be canceled or moved online, leading to economic impacts at every level in the state.

Statewide, 31 county fairs statewide have been canceled this year as a result of concerns surrounding the pandemic, said Kevin Hardison, agricultural marketing specialist for the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

About 25 of those county fairs are operated by nonprofits, while the remainder of the events are operated by county governments, he said.

They include the Wilkes Agricultural Fair, put on by the North Wilkesboro Rotary Club. It was scheduled in October and was cancelled about a month ago.

The fairs that are operated by nonprofits “generated conservatively $24 million annually for the state in past years,” Hardison said.

The N.C. State Fair is one of the events operated by a county government. It was scheduled for Oct. 15-25, but was canceled in July out of concerns over the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

N.C. State Fair manager Kent Yelverton said the annual event started more than 150 years ago. The last time it was canceled was during World War II. Before that, it was canceled due to the Civil War. Yelverton said canceling the fair this year was necessary.

“Our No. 1 priority is the safety and health of the staff and guests at the fairgrounds, always,” Yelverton said.

“The times that the fair was previously canceled were broad situations during which the focus was on an impactful event. Wake County is now (dealing with) COVID-19, which is impactful in its own way.”

The cancellation of the fair and more than 180 other events scheduled to take place at the state fairgrounds since February has led to the loss of an estimated $2.3 million in revenue for the fair as an entity, according to a July 29 statement from N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler.

Andrea Ashby, N.C. Department of Agriculture director of public affairs, clarified that number, saying lost money is revenue that was not paid to the state fair for use of its facilities between February and the date of the fair’s cancellation.

“For our organization, that is a significant hit,” Ashby said. “We have had to use furloughs as a result of that lost revenue. Fifty-four positions in all were furloughed. Approximately 13 were temporary, so the other 41 positions were permanent. We hope the furloughs are short term, but that is yet to be determined.”

The Mountain State Fair near Asheville was also canceled due to concerns linked to the pandemic.

WNC Agricultural Center manager Matt Buchanan said the impact of the fair’s cancellation is significant for the state’s western region.

“For us, we are a self-supporting agency and event, so it is a big impact to our budget,” he said.

“I would estimate that the economic impact to the state’s western region as a result of the cancellation is a loss of $2 million. That is from things like hotel stays, people buying gas, eating at the region’s restaurants, buying tickets to the fair and food and souvenirs at the fair.”

While the fair is off for 2020, plans are in the works for next year’s event, Buchanan said. The WNC Agricultural Center was able to hold its horse and livestock shows digitally under Gov. Roy Cooper’s mandates about athletic events, Buchanan said. The retail shows can be held at 50% capacity in person under the rule.

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