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Wheeler Co. Fair finds silver lining

Virtual fair sees increase in sales and out of state viewers

By Patrick Farrell

The livestock barns at the Wheeler County Fairgrounds lay silent at this year’s fair in Fossil. Widespread cancellations of public events due to State COVID19 restrictions forced the cancellation of the 2020 fair. With little time to prepare, Wheeler County OSU Extension Agents Amy Derby and Miesha Bennett, together with volunteers, took the bull by the horns and pivoted to a hybrid virtual format to ensure the fair tradition continued.

“We were still uncertain how things were going to go, right up to the last minute. We were waiting on the Governor’s restrictions and we weren’t sure what was going to happen,” Derby said. When the Governor’s orders finally came in, Amy, Miesha, and the small army of volunteers got to work conceptualizing what a county fair would look like if exhibitors and fairgoers we unable to attend the fair in person.

In Wheeler County, 4-H is operated under the guidance and management of the OSU Extension Office, an arm of Oregon State University. The connection provides critical support for 4-H, but the relationship comes with some challenges. Derby says the “connection to OSU means the State sees 4-H, and its events, as part of higher education which means we had to meet stricter requirements for public gatherings”.

The liability of being a potential COVID19 transmission point meant OSU was naturally very cautious about any gatherings. At the center of every fair is an opportunity for exhibitors to show their hard work to judges, and for judges to help educate exhibitors. Fortunately, Wheeler County is a shining example of how smaller is better. The total number of exhibitors at any one time were small enough to fly under the State’s restriction threshold for “meetings”, thus allowing the kids to display their animals. Even without an audience, the kids were able to show animals and receive important educational feedback from judges, something parents and residents of Wheeler County had concerns about.

“We sent out surveys to see how people felt about the fair and if they would still participate if it was held virtually”, Derby says. Respondents said they would still participate even if the fair was virtual only. Seeing kids grow and broaden their education rose to the top of the list of concerns if the fair was held virtually. Armed with this information, Derby and Bennett set their focus on figuring out how to employ modern technology to produce a fair without attendees. Combining Facebook Live with other social media efforts, ZOOM webinars, enlisting help from local businesses, and conference calls, Derby and Bennett wrangled a solution that still met the educational needs of the fair, while proving a way for the public to participate.

We received a lot of positive feedback. Some of the kids have grandparents in Alaska and Ireland, and they’ve never been able to see their grandkids present!

– Amy Derby, Wheeler Co. 4-H Extension Agent, Oregon State University

“The Fossil Mercantile gave us window space to display static exhibits, which was big!” Derby exclaimed. “It’s been a huge, huge learning curve for us”, Derby says of the unprecedented task of producing a fair like no other in history. “Miesha and I tried several things, from YouTube to Facebook Live. We thought Facebook Live would work for the auction, but there was a 30 second or more delay so that wasn’t going to work. We tried YouTube but they had a lot of their own requirements”. Fortunately, the connection to OSU meant the duo could utilize OSU software for webinars without needing to purchase expensive software licenses. “Thankfully, the university had the tools necessary. I think the only thing I had to purchase was a tri-pod”. Derby says. Facebook Live was used for showing animals and static exhibits during the week. Derby notes that the shift to virtual had some distinct advantages. “We received a lot of positive feedback. Some of the kids have grandparents in Alaska and Ireland, and they’ve never been able to see their grandkids present!” With the shows held via social media, the team was also able to create more robust bios for the exhibitors and their animals.

The pivot to social media engagement may have led to better prices on auction day. Using the college’s ZOOM webinar license allowed Derby to schedule a live webinar broadcast of the auction, sponsored by the Wheeler County Stockgrowers. Jeremiah Holmes of Spray acted as the auctioneer and juggled spotting bids from bidders in the room and from conference callers watching the auction live through ZOOM. Potential buyers were able to view animals in previously broadcast Facebook Live events. “We were able to add more details prior to auction and that may have helped bidders. And the kids used cut-outs of their animals during the auction. Some paraded them around. They got pretty creative.”, Derby says. Some quick calculations showed despite the non-traditional fair format financial support for the kids and their projects increased in 2020.

Derby reports average overall sale prices increased 46% from 2019. “I think buyers were more aware going into the auction this year because of Facebook and a few other things”, Derby says. “This has been a year of adaptations. We had a lot of community support. We weren’t making decisions on our own. We had a lot of ideas come from the community and Miesha and I would work together to see how we could make things work. It’s a different level of connection, and that’s been good”.

Through resolute support from the Fair Board, County Court, various committees, parents, business owners, and residents, the Wheeler County Fair tackled a difficult hurdle to keep a tradition alive. While Derby doesn’t think a virtual fair is the new normal, she believes integrating new technology helped achieve success this year and will help keep the fair tradition alive. “If there’s a positive side to any of this, it’s that we were sort of forced to embrace new technology, and that will help us in the future”, Derby says.


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