Fun, food and masks on agenda for fairs

VHS senior Leah Hayward ties her steer’s lead to a fence at the family farm in Wildwood. She raised Whiskey ahead of the Sumter County Fair even though it wasn’t certain if the event would take place.

Midway rides, fried food and agriculture students’ farm animal projects won’t stop because of the pandemic. That’s because county fair season is moving forward for 2021, even with some adjustments to keep people safe. Fairs are on the schedule for the tri-county area, with the Sumter County Fair having started on March 5 and the 100th Lake County Fair scheduled for April. Although the COVID-19 pandemic presented challenges for fair organizers, the uncertainty of whether fairs would happen did not stand in the way of students at The Villages High School’s Agriscience Academy who raised steers for show at the Sumter fair.

“I think it’s important to have something normal through the pandemic that helps give people something to look forward to,” said Leah Hayward, a VHS senior who raised a steer, Whiskey, for the fair.

What’s different

At the Sumter County Fair, masks are required when inside all buildings. But they’re not required outdoors when social distancing can be maintained, fair President Erin Munz said.

Hand-sanitizing stations are readily accessible throughout the fairgrounds, she added.

“COVID-19 exposure is an inherent risk in any public location where people are present,” Munz said. “Guests should only attend after evaluating their own health risks. The Sumter County Fair Association cannot guarantee you will not be exposed during your visit.”

More than 10 counties had their fairs before the start of Sumter’s. Florida’s fair industry works every day on safety plans and precautions to keep guests and employees safe from COVID-19, said Daniel West, executive director of the Florida Federation of Fairs & Livestock Shows.

“We’ve had other situations we’ve had to adapt (to), not as extreme as COVID-19, but we’ve had to work through it,” he said. “Fairs are important to Florida, and they’re an economic driver for the counties.”

How each county fair addresses COVID-19 depends on the expectations from county governments and health departments, West said.

For instance, while Sumter’s fair is requiring mask-wearing indoors but not outdoors, West said he’s planning to attend a fair where masks must be worn at all times.

And many fairs are keeping their entertainment options lower-key, knowing large crowds gathered to see big-name entertainers is not feasible in a pandemic, he said.

How midway operators responsible for food and rides at the fairs addressed safety precautions guided fair organizers in their approaches, West said.

For example, Belle City Amusements, which operated rides at the Manatee County Fair, did temperature checks on its employees and required them to wear masks, he said. The staff also disinfected parts of the rides at different times and made hand sanitizers available at the rides.

“We looked at things we needed to do as an industry, and the midway operators took the lead,” West said.

Raising animals

Agriculture students had to adapt to raising animals despite the uncertainty of whether a fair would happen during the pandemic. But students said they were up to that challenge.

For the most part, the pandemic didn’t pose any additional challenges for VHS students raising steers for the Sumter County Fair.

Leah and Kade Sanders, a VHS junior also raising a steer, both said they didn’t receive help outside of their family and were able to purchase feed and equipment without issues. The only difference from previous years was wearing a mask when shopping for supplies in person.

Leah, 17, worked on livestock projects for the fair for six years, raising pigs in the first five. This year’s fair was her first experience raising a steer.

She said she wanted more of a challenge.

“It’s a whole new thing — walking a dog on a leash is different from walking a steer on a halter,” she said. “And I like that. I like to learn new things. Plus, you can get more money out of it, and I’d like it to help me going into college.”

Leah’s steer, Whiskey, started out at 673 pounds and now weighs about 1,100 pounds. An average day working with the steer involves feeding, grooming and walking him using a tractor as a guide.

She said Whiskey is one of her favorite animals she’s worked with because his mild and mellow demeanor makes him easy to work with.

“He acts like a puppy,” Leah said. “He loves to go on walks and loves treats. He’s like a big dog.”

Kade, 16, is raising his third animal for the Sumter fair. Working with his steer, which now weighs 1,175 pounds, helped him learn the responsibility of caring for a different type of animal.

“It’s a good learning experience,” he said.

The only challenge related to the pandemic Kade encountered was getting through every day not knowing for certain whether the fair would happen.

But he kept going by looking at it from a more positive perspective, saying if the fair didn’t happen that he was confident he would be able to sell the steer another way.

That, plus knowing the role he was playing by feeding people through a pandemic.

“It feels good being able to help someone eat, being able to help someone through all this,” he said.

Students already have enough challenges — gaining and keeping their animals’ trust, working to meet the weight requirements, and getting the animals acclimated to the stresses of the fair stage.

Having the fair is a culmination of rigorous preparation work for agricultural students so they can showcase the results of their projects, many of which begin after the previous year’s fair ends.

“These kids are required to keep financial records, attend ethics training, and do workdays at the fair before they ever step into the show ring,” Munz said.

Students raising steers have 186 days to feed, water, groom and train their animals, she said. Swine and lamb students must do the same tasks in 99 days.

Agriculture students’ dedication and hard work show in how they stuck with their projects despite the pandemic uncertainty, Munz said.

“You invest all the time in your animal with the expectation of having a fair, but then there’s the uncertainty of whether we have a fair. Everyone’s been challenged this year,” she said. “The determination in these kids and the love for the industry says a lot for our children.”

Supporting Future Farmers

That determination doesn’t go unrecognized.

Sumter County’s business community — especially contractors from The Villages — plays a significant role in supporting the students exhibiting livestock by bidding on their animals at auction, Munz said.

These business operators see their purchases as a way of helping the community.

Kenny Adams, general manager of Knight’s Feed, a livestock feed manufacturer based in Bushnell, said he and his staff go to fairs throughout Central Florida to support their local agriculture students.

This matters to businesses like Adams’ because it’s an investment in the future of agriculture.

“There’s a good chance they end up in our industry, and so many of them go on to do good things,” he said. “It may not be noticeable, but in the grand scheme of things they make the world go round.”

Adams isn’t alone in his sentiment.

Buyers at the fair in previous years include T&D Concrete, Galaxy Home Solutions, Tri County Landscapes, Brite Leaf Citrus Nursery, Knight’s Feed, 75 Chrome Shop, Webster Farm Supply, and Shady Brook Peaches and Blueberries, according to fair documents.

The Villages Developer also plays a part, contributing a $100 add-on to every student showing an animal at the fair, Munz said.

Adams was inspired by his grandfather’s purchases of FFA and 4-H projects when he was in agribusiness, as well as the support he received for his fair projects when he was in FFA — a sort of paying it forward from one generation to the next.

“We want to support anyone that wants to get into this industry,” he said, “because we feel this is an important industry.”

Senior writer Michael Salerno can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5369, or michael.salerno@thevillagesmedia.com.