CARP – 2020 has hurt everybody and everything. The global COVID-19 pandemic, coming up on its official 11th month, has had no mercy. For the Carp Agricultural Society (CAS) one of the mandates is to bring community together.

That was impossible for the 157-year-old CAS in 2020. Every single regularly-schedule event the CAS hosts save for two euchres was cancelled due to the ongoing pandemic (the CAS did host two brand new events in 2020 – the Carp Fair Fireworks Show and Showcase and the Santa Claus Parade).

On Jan. 21, the CAS held its annual general meeting. A bit of irony, it was one of the largest attended AGMs in the fair board’s recent history – around 84 members logged in to the online only meeting.

“We assumed it would be smaller,” 2021 Carp Fair President of Agriculture Neil Falls told West Carleton Online last Thursday (Feb. 4). “This may be the way to go.”

West Carleton Online spoke to both incoming presidents, including President of Homecraft Laurie Dillon, as is tradition for this media outlet since it launched in 2018. But never has such an interview been filled with such uncertainty.

There is still no clear sign if organizers of The Best Little Fair in Canada will be able to hold West Carleton’s defining annual event in 2021.

2020 was a battle every step of the way. When your main source of revenue involves bringing people together, you were destined to take a big hit in 2021. Cash assets for the CAS dropped from $390,698 in 2019 to $299,000 in 2020 – a drop of $91,000 (the CAS’ year end for accounting purposes is at the end of October).

The CAS’ auditors, KPMG are reticent to put an exact figure on the pandemic’s toll.

“The situation is dynamic and the ultimate duration and magnitude of the impact on the economy and the financial effect on the society is not known at this time,” the KPMG wrote in its report released to the public at the AGM.

But it is fair to say the impact has been significant indeed. The CAS reports its 2020 revenue at $315,663. Down more than $1.22 million from 2019 when it recorded a revenue of $1,541,989. In 2019, fair operations brought in $794,781. In 2020 that number was $1,785.

While the CAS was able to slash expenses by more than $1 million in 2020 to $401,295, it still meant a loss of $85,632.

In 2021, the board is focusing on what it can control.

“True, there is some uncertainty,” Falls said. “But there are things we do know. We have a better mindset of COVID-19; what the city expects in relation to the pandemic. Last year things changed daily. People now know you have to wear masks, handwashing. It’s going to be an environment we can plan for.”

With an ever-changing deadline for vaccinations, and ever-changing rules accompanying the fall and rise of new COVID-19 cases, the board doesn’t know what they might be able to host in 2021.

“We don’t have a specific schedule,” Falls said. “Everyone that spoke was confident we would have a bit of a schedule. We’ve watched our peers in the industry. We have a better idea of what we can do. There are a huge number of challenges. Can people gather? We can’t even get together for this interview. But there are things we can do.”

The CAS is hopeful they will be able to host some version of their popular Carp Fair Drive-In Bingo this year – an event that attracts hundreds of cars to the fairgrounds each week in July. But even that comes with concerns.

“People will want to get out of their cars, so how to we deal with that?” Falls said.

The board is making plans for a fair the fourth weekend of September, but for right now, there’s no way of knowing if that will be allowed. While September may seem a long way away, The Best Little Fair in Canada takes a lot of organizing, even if it has to be modified.

“My God, I hope so,” Dillon said. “Any semblance of normalcy, for the board and the community would be warmly welcomed. Everyone is in the same boat. We’re all volunteers. People see the effect of COVID-19 here. But they also see it at their home, work and in their social life.”

One of the strengths of the CAS is its volunteer base. Its hundreds strong, filled with people devoted to the fair they grew up with.

“We have support to do whatever we can safely,” Falls said.

The Carp Fair fireworks show last September and the Santa Claus static parade the CAS partnered with the Huntley Community Association last December to put on, are examples of that.

A photo of the fireworks show the Carp Argricultural Society held on Carp Fair weekend.
The fireworks show the Carp Argricultural Society held on Carp Fair weekend was a popular event amidst the pandemic, as was the static Santa Claus parade. Photo by Jake Davies

“I was blown away by the fireworks and the parade,” Falls said. “At the parade we counted 920 cars. I was on the float the whole time and I didn’t see anyone driving alone. The support is there.”

Of course, hosting any event in these times is “a monstrous worry” when it comes to getting people to volunteer and to attend.

“We have to find a way to manage safely,” Dillon said. “That’s paramount. But this whole society is for families and for the promotion of community and agriculture.”

Becoming a president of the CAS is an at least 12-year journey. One of the reasons the Carp Fair has earned its national praise is due to the organization of its leadership. Board members dedicate themselves to the CAS. To be eligible for a president position, you first have to chair every committee at the board. That takes 12 years minimum. By the time a volunteer board member becomes president, they’ve become intimately familiar with every aspect of the organization.

Dillon has been a board member for 13 years. She’s a third-generation board member. Despite the uncertainty of 2021, she’s honoured to lead the organization this year.

“It’s very exciting, of course,” Dillon said. “That gives me so much pride. It was bred in me. Neil and I grew up as neighbours, we’re lifelong friends, so that makes it more exciting.”

Falls is also a multi-generational member who has spent 12 years on the board.

“It is very exciting,” he said. “It’s a long road, but it’s worth it. The experience component is very important. No other board I’ve heard of does it this way. I can honestly say our board will never be stagnant. I’m excited to see how it all comes together. It’s a different year. I’m really looking forward to seeing all the effort come together and have our board components all work together. It’s all about giving back to the community. I’m excited about the idea of my kids growing up in the fair. It’s fun to meet some of the older board members as well and find out how they put it all together.”

Falls says the vested interest of all the members and volunteers is “what makes our board so effective.”

“People care,” he said. “I’m very excited. I’m looking forward to more stories and more challenges and seeing what we can do this year.”