The almost 10% decline in Rock County 4-H Fair attendance this year was especially disappointing because the usual culprit—the weather—could not be blamed.
It was a little hot and humid this weekend, but on the whole the weather was gorgeous for the end of July. Indeed, the fair caught a break with an unbearable heat wave passing through the area the week before the fair opened. People should have been primed to return to the outdoors after emerging from their air-conditioned bunkers.
Outgoing fair board President Randy Thompson offered some theories to explain the attendance decline this year, but none is satisfying given the weather’s cooperation. He mentioned the fair ran at the same time as Farm Technology Days in Jefferson County. He also noted the fair must compete with a wide range of family entertainment options. Youth participation in 4-H and FFA has declined over the years, drawing to the fair fewer families with 4-H obligations.
Still, we should not accept the attendance slump as inevitable, and we should assume the fair can out-compete other events. Many fairs are struggling across the nation, but some are doing better than others. The Wisconsin State Fair starts this week, and it broke an attendance record last year, drawing 1.04 million people. The state fair surpassed the 1 million mark for the sixth consecutive year.
State fair organizers seem successful in capitalizing on that event’s strengths. How can Rock County do the same for its fair?
The Rock County 4-H Fair has an enduring connection to 4-H. Our fair is the definition of a family event, even prohibiting beer sales to maintain a wholesome atmosphere.
The world is filled with entertainment options but not necessarily family-friendly ones. People can communicate with each other instantly on their smartphones, but they cannot skip easily from a barn of goats to a barn of pigs. Most people cannot walk among and pet the cows without living on a farm. Like no other venue, the fair allows urban dwellers to get in touch with Wisconsin’s rural roots.
The Rock County 4-H Fair has much more to offer than this year’s attendance figures suggest.
Despite the low attendance, there’s no cause for panic. Attendance has slumped periodically, and this year’s attendance is actually higher than the 30-year low of 64,845 in 1989 and 2016.
The fair board has shown it’s not afraid to retool the fair and in recent years has improved the fair’s financial outlook. It must continue to scrutinize the event and search for opportunities to boost attendance.
Yes, the fair is competing against many other entertainment options, but it’s a competition the fair can win. We believe in this fair and believe the attendance can rise with the right ideas and leadership.