As the gates at the Topsham Fair opened Wednesday morning, vendors were readying their booths while a band tuned up on the stage. It was the calm before the storm as workers and volunteers got ready for another busy day at the week-long, annual agricultural event.
After two years of cancelations and downsizing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Maine’s agricultural fairs are back with a bang, thanks to larger-than-expected attendance. And while that may be good news overall, fair organizers must now cope with a lack of workers and volunteers.
About 60 volunteers typically organize and work the Topsham Fair, according to Kathi Yergin, the fair’s second vice president. This year, she said, there were about 40.
It’s a statewide issue, according to Barry W. Norris, executive director of the Maine Association of Agricultural Fairs.
Paid workers, he said, are often foreign seasonal workers, who can be hard to come by depending on changes to immigration laws.
Norris said his real concern is with local volunteer help, the latest casualty in an overall decline in volunteer work he first noticed in local fire departments.
“Volunteerism, I think, is lacking across the board,” he said.
The Yarmouth Clam Festival, which made its comeback in July, was staffed in part by volunteers from about 30 different nonprofits. Jeanette Gilmore, co-owner of Smokey’s Great Shows, which provides amusements at the clam festival and other events throughout Maine, said in July that carnival rides and food vendors had to have a smaller footprint this year.
Gilmore said she usually counted on 55 workers returning for the summer season, but this year she had to settle for only 20.
Even the Fryeburg Fair, which runs in the fall, saw fewer volunteers in 2021, according to Rachel Andrews Damon, the fair’s spokesperson.
While she didn’t have an exact number – saying, “We were down a bit” – she noted that no significant changes came as a result of volunteer shortages.
Norris and other fair organizers and workers could only speculate as to the cause of the shortage, with opinions ranging from a lack of work ethic to flagging interest in agricultural events in a digital world.
Maine’s agricultural fairs aren’t the only ones short-staffed. The state’s unemployment rate in June was a mere 3%, while the nation’s unemployment rate in July was 3.5%, resulting in worker shortages across a range of industries.
Meanwhile, attendance at Maine’s agricultural fairs is expected to remain high. Damon said the Fryeburg Fair will be running as planned, from Oct. 2-9, and she expects a good turnout.
“We have a lot of loyal followers,” she said.
At the Topsham Fair Wednesday morning, Brian Gould, 56, was polishing the exterior of his fried dough booth. He said the fair was packed Tuesday, despite heavy rains.
“It was pretty good,” Gould said. “I hope it’s as good today as yesterday.”
Other vendors and fair organizers agreed that it was remarkably busy, and the expectation is that final ticket sales will number in the tens of thousands, as usual.
Organizers of the Bangor State Fair, which recently made headlines for a scaled-back offering this year, are already staging a comeback, according to Norris.
Bangor’s fair this year did not include the usual agricultural component, in part due to old livestock barns and other support structures being dismantled, Norris said. He added that the State Department of Agriculture is working with fair organizers to ensure that livestock returns to Bangor in 2023.
In the meantime, Norris said, Bangor did well this year despite lacking the agricultural show.
“They did record numbers with their carnival and demolition derby,” he said.
Norris said fairs statewide did unexpectedly well in 2021 since most fairs had been canceled for the previous two years due to the pandemic.
“People had been inside for two years, and in 2021 they came out in droves,” he said.
Yergin said in a typical year, attendance in Topsham is as high as 80,000, but in 2021 the fair’s attendance topped 100,000. This year, organizers expect a normal or above-normal turnout by the time the fair ends on Sunday.
Leon Brillant, the fair’s president, said he didn’t have a ticket sale count for Tuesday, but said turnout was high.
“Even though it was raining, we did pretty good,” he said.
Organizers at the Fryeburg Fair reported no shortage of attendance last year. Damon said in a typical year, the fair usually has about 170,000 ticket sales and in 2021, the fair hit that target.
“We had a good year,” she said.