Then and now: June Dairy Month and other summer events come back with caution

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
Crowds at the Wisconsin State Fair.

With COVID-19 restrictions being lifted en masse across the country, Wisconsin is finally getting back to its roots with a revived June Dairy Month compared to last year, when many annual events were shut down or modified.

Beth Schaefer, regional manager for Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, said that we should expect to see a June Dairy Month entirely different from 2020 because of the return of in-person, but some new things, like drive-thru events, will probably stick around because of the convenience. She said sending people home with food, educational signs and even podcasts has highlighted drive-thru events since last year and they continue to be popular.

"We saw the first drive-thru on-farm dairy breakfasts and events. We also experienced virtual dairy farm tours and social media celebrations of dairy," Schaefer said. "Based on feedback from volunteers and event-goers alike, it is very likely that drive-thru style events will stick around. Drive-thru events have afforded counties a way to not only provide a great dairy-centric breakfast, but enhance event-goer experiences by providing education signs, tours and podcasts to car-bound captive audiences."

Dairy farmers, FFA members and others in the community also came together to help out families experiencing income loss - and each other. Schaefer said last year's June Dairy Month created a lasting show of how dedicated and passionate people are for their communities with food giveaways and donations to various causes.

One good thing the pandemic brought was the ability to connect from far away via Zoom and other video calling services, Schaefer remarked. Even though broadband access is still a struggle for some in rural Wisconsin, connecting on video allowed for collaboration where it may not have even happened without the pandemic. Because of that, 2021 and 2022 will be roaring with events to make up for a stark 2020 event scene.

Beth Schaefer

"It has been really incredible to witness event organizers and volunteers share tips and ideas with one another to help each other to be more successful in reaching and teaching consumers at 2021 events," Schaefer said. "Through this statewide collaboration, we are seeing a big jump in the number and scope of events that are planned for 2021 versus 2020."

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Local health departments will still be seeing to any COVID-19 health concerns as it relates to a specific area, Schaefer said, with many municipalities lifting their mask, social distancing and building capacity ordinances across the state. She said that the planning for many summer events at DFW began at the beginning of 2021 when things were much more uncertain, leading some organizations to put off events until late 2021 or 2022.

Kathleen O'Leary, CEO of the Wisconsin State Fair, also said their staff was planning conservatively in the beginning of 2021. But since vaccinations have rapidly increased and COVID-19 illness numbers are down, she said they're ready to get back into the full swing of things, especially when planning for next year's fair.

"We've been cautiously optimistic from even the latter part of 2020 and certainly moving into 2021. The board of directors in the January board meeting made the goal and approved to move forward with the 2021 Wisconsin State Fair, certainly following all of the safety guidelines," O'Leary said. "We have a number of models that we look at that, if we had to have masks, what does that look like? ... This has evolved on an everyday basis."

While the state fairgrounds won't be hosting any June Dairy Month events, the regular ag-related events when it comes to the State Fair will be back in a modified capacity, O'Leary said. She said some ag programs, like their all-for-one sheep and swine shows and youth camps, will not happen this year in the interest of caution. The way exhibitors stay at the Tommy Thompson Youth Center will also be modified.

O'Leary added that the state fairgrounds has also received GBAC STAR facility accreditation, which means they've been certified for their janitorial and biohazard protocols. She said it's been an increasingly popular choice for event venues to show their visitors they're taking cleaning to the next level.

Kathleen O'Leary, Wisconsin State Fair CEO and Wisconsin State Fair Park Foundation board member, talks about the new interactive exhibit Dairy Lane that will be ready when the State Fair opens on Aug. 1.

"We had to go through almost 21 different elements in order to pass, so this was a very grueling process in order to be accredited," O'Leary said. "We're very proud of it, and it's just another front-facing way for us to say that we take our cleaning protocols and our biohazard protocols very seriously."

As the situation continues to evolve, the Wisconsin State Fair will continue to update its models and guidance on how events will happen, O'Leary said. She added that the fairgrounds are also struggling with finding enough staff for the 11 days of the fair this year, a familiar story to many industries in the state. She said they ordinarily hire more than 1,700 people for the fair alone, but that's not a goal they even hope to reach this year.

"We have what's glaring all of us in the eye, and that is our labor issue. That is something that's very, very challenging for us at Wisconsin State Fair," O'Leary said. "It's a matter of, how do we manage this situation that every industry is, for the most part, experiencing. (It's a) hardship of coming out of a pandemic and trying to find good workers."