Farm families, livestock exhibitors saddened by Wisconsin State Fair cancellation
Wisconsin farm families, and Milwaukee high school students who raise livestock, will be disappointed if the cancellation of the Wisconsin State Fair means they won’t have an opportunity to showcase their animal this year.
“I’m still holding out hope there will be something … because when I was a kid, showing animals at State Fair was something I looked forward to all summer long,” said Chad Ryan, a dairy farmer from Fond du Lac.
“A lot of these kids have been working on their projects for months, so to not have a place to go would be pretty sad,” Ryan said.
It’s the first time in 75 years that the Wisconsin State Fair has been canceled. Organizers said Thursday they were worried about operating a massive event safely and economically during the coronavirus pandemic.
However, organizers said they had not yet made a decision on whether the livestock events would be canceled or would be allowed to go forward in some manner.
“From the Ag exhibitors, especially the youth, we are trying to look at what could be done. What are some possibilities. But it is tough. I know there has been a lot of investment not only of time but money in terms of the projects, whether they be regular projects or livestock,” said State Fair Chairman John Yingling.
Normally, the annual event attracts about 1,500 students from across the state, showcasing the best of Wisconsin agriculture through 4H and Future Farmers of America chapters.
“It’s a long-held tradition for so many families, whether they’re farmers or people from Milwaukee. So it’s disappointing to have it canceled. But I also think it’s the right decision,” said Carrie Mess, a dairy farmer from Jefferson County.
“It’s not as disappointing as having to go to your grandma’s funeral,” Mess said about the COVID-19 concerns.
Over the years, the livestock barns at State Fair Park have been the gathering place for farm kids from across Wisconsin. For many, it’s the only time they get to see each other in person, although some make friendships that last a lifetime.
“I know a lot of people who met their future spouse at State Fair,” Mess said.
Four students from Milwaukee’s Vincent High School were scheduled to show sheep and cattle at this year’s fair. Located on the far northwest side of the city, Vincent boasts the only high school agriculture program — and Future Farmers of America club — in Milwaukee County. There, on a mini-farm adjacent to campus, Vincent exposes students to ag-related career pathways, from animal and environmental sciences to culinary arts.
"The focus isn't teaching them to be farmers. It's teaching them to be good consumers, to know where their food comes from," said Gail Kraus, who manages the high school's agriculture education program.
Agriculture was a focus at Vincent when it first opened in the 1970s. But it was eliminated because of budget cuts in the early '90s. Milwaukee Public Schools relaunched the program in 2012.
Not having the fair would be a huge loss for her students, Kraus said, especially for the seniors who won't have another chance at it.
“It’s their only option to show their animals because they don’t have a county fair," she said. "It’s even more challenging for our students at Vincent who haven’t grown up on farms and lived the farming lifestyle. We have students who have never really touched animals, let alone learned how to raise and care for them. To have that cut out is kind of sad.”
Some counties have already canceled their summer fair, while others are still going ahead with it or haven't yet made a decision.
Prize-winning animals at the Wisconsin State Fair have brought their owners thousands of dollars in the livestock auction, helping fund some students' college education. Farmers also see the event as a good way to connect with urban consumers, explaining how animals are raised.
Largely, though, the fair is a family event, a few days when the kids can hang out together in the dormitories, play cards in the barns, and parents can swap stories about farming.
"It's kind of like a family that's involved with their children in sports," said Richard Halopka, a University of Wisconsin-Extension agent from Clark County.
"Not having the state fair would be a big letdown. But, unfortunately, this year it's a sign of the times," Halopka said.