State of flux: State fair plans

Amy Hadachek
for The Fence Post
The Nebraska State Fair will look different in 2020.
Photo courtesy Nebraska State Fair

The big question is will the re-organization of area state fairs be more of a roller coaster ride than COVID-19 this year, as summer vacation plans pick up speed. There are important updates and different perspectives to the Colorado State Fair, Wyoming State Fair & Rodeo, and Nebraska State Fair. Fair officials courteously suggest checking just before you attend, to know the latest update either way.


A decision was made in mid-June to hold a “modified version” of the 148th Colorado State Fair in Pueblo, largely showcasing 4-H livestock to propel youth through their hard work and dedication in earning the opportunity to show and sell their animals at the fair. The Colorado State Fair board of authority voted on June 16 to modify fair activities during the 2020 state fair, due to the ongoing COVID-19 public health crisis.

With new guidelines in place, the fair board said activities being considered include: the Junior Livestock Show and Sale, FFA Heifer Wrangle, Catch-a-Calf, 4-H Horse Show, 4-H Dog Show, 4-H Rocketry, and 4-H Static Exhibits as well as limited food, and virtual competitive exhibits.

“Based on today’s public health guidelines, people will need to socially distance and wear masks,” said Scott Stoller, general manager of the Colorado State Fair. “We will adjust to what the guidelines of the day are, as we get closer to fair time.”

Another big question is what about the food?

Like the mercurial, rapidly developing clouds on a Colorado summer afternoon, state fair standards may also change, between now and then.

Stoller said with the recent health guidance, their goal is to have a food vendor in the livestock complex, and one in the horse show complex. “CDPHE (Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment) currently limits public gatherings and only allows for us to host 4-H and FFA exhibitors, plus our staff. In August, if these limits on gatherings increase, we will add back food vendors, and have a mechanism in place to allow for a controlled number of public attendance,” Stoller added. “If gathering restrictions are increased, then our plans will include a mix of virtual and onsite components.”

Ever since April 22, 2020, the Colorado State Fairgrounds have been operating as a drive-through COVID-19 testing site for Pueblo County. In 1917, the state fairground property was also modified as Camp Carlson, and was a training facility for the Army National Guard during World War I.

Exhibitors, like the fair’s popular Pass Key On the Go Italian sausage sandwich food truck counts on the Colorado State Fair yearly, for one-quarter of its food truck business.

“It’s gonna be hard if they don’t have food vendors, because that’s our biggest event of the year. I’m just doing smaller events around town with my food truck,” said Karen Pagano. “My husband and I started it in 1996, he passed away in 2002.” Pagano also serves meals in her food truck behind the Highway 50 Pass Key Restaurant location. The four Pueblo Pass Key restaurants are all owned by the Pagano family.

Their big menu item is an “Italian patty sausage on a mini loaf with mustard and lettuce, you can get it with Swiss, American or provolone or without cheese. Our super includes all three cheeses and french fries,” Pagano said.

“The Colorado State Fair exists to serve the people of Colorado and beyond,” Stoller said. “This year, it means managing smaller groups of people on the fairground property, maintaining social distancing, and providing it for use as a testing site.”

Colorado Ag Commissioner Kate Greenberg said in a statement, “We take our responsibility to the safety of our state fair patrons and participants very seriously. The advice and recommendations from Pueblo County Health and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, including new state guidance on outdoor events, were a key part of this lengthy and careful decision making process.”

The first fair in Pueblo was in 1872, but then Colorado became a state in 1876, so the first official Colorado State Fair was actually 1886 when the legislature deemed it that.

During the 11-day Colorado State Fair last year, a total of 466,380 people attended.

This year, due to COVID-19, it was important to make a decision about the fair by mid-June.

“If we waited to cancel much later (only 30 days ahead) we would’ve spent a million dollars in July, and be out all that time and money. So, by making this earlier decision, it was in everybody’s interest not to lose the million dollars,” said Stoller, who has been at the helm for two years, but has managed fairs for 14 years; including in Corvallis, Ore., and Chico, Calif.

“We’ve been open to having a fair that’s our desire with our stakeholders and partners, but either way we are partners of Colorado and the community and just want to do what’s in the best interest of Colorado,” he said. “We want to preserve the traditions of the state.”

In 2022, Colorado will celebrate the 150th fair.

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NEBRASKA STATE FAIR: Aug. 28 to Sept. 7, 2020

The Nebraska State Fair Board has re-structured this year’s fair; and (similar to Colorado’s State Fair modifications) it will focus on 4-H and FFA livestock competitions and exhibitions for members to showcase the work they’ve been doing throughout the year. On June 30, the Nebraska State Fair board voted to hold this modified state fair, noting Nebraska’s 151st fair event will start Aug. 28 at Fonner Park in Grand Island and is expected to run through Sept. 7, 2020, but final schedules are still a “work in progress.”

“Within this window, we look forward to host 4-H Livestock first weekend, FFA Livestock second weekend, and 4-H and FFA static exhibits all 11 days. We hope to add some additional components to the fair schedule,” said Jaime Parr, chief of sales and service.

The fair will have hand washing and hand sanitizing stations available.

Contingencies like social distancing, capacity restrictions by area, and wearing face coverings are dependent on what the current Directed Health Measures for Hall County will be, at fair time.

There is no gate admission to attend the Nebraska State Fair, this year.

“We will have fair foods and we are working to also have some merchandise vendors in 2020,” Parr said.

New this season, the fair board approved Bill Ogg as the 2020 Nebraska State Fair executive director. Ogg officially began his duties July 1. Previously, Ogg was the general manager for the Walla Walla Fair and Frontier Days in Walla Walla, Wash.

“We’re expecting 4,000 4-H members and their families at opening weekend and we’ll have food vendors available for them, and the public at Fonner Park. Also, we’ll have events at the permanent facilities on the grounds at Fonner Park like The Barn Bar and the Nebraska Cattlemen’s Beef Pit,” said Ogg, who grew up on a row crop farm and cow-calf feeder operation in Worland, Wyo.

Fair officials are offering an opportunity for entertainment acts to apply online, to perform at the fair.

“We’ll program in as many of those folks as we can in the smaller tavern bar areas throughout the footprint on the Fonner Park fairgrounds,” he said “We’re looking at entertainment that’s within or near these beverage areas, to keep people entertained a little longer.”

This will be the state fair’s 11th year in Grand Island. There was one year of no fair during a war.

Mayor Roger Steele of Grand Island, Neb., told The Fence Post, people have been watching to see how Grand Island comes out with directed health measures.

“Hall County and the city of Grand Island got hit pretty hard with the coronavirus this spring, because we have the JBS Meat Packing plant and other essential workers necessary for food production who were required to keep working. If you’re gathering with other people, you’re more at risk, than if you’re at home,” Mayor Steele said.

The importance of agriculture became clearer than ever to the entire world, during the pandemic. “Many saw how important agriculture is, and how important farmers, transport workers, processing workers, grocery store employees, and the entire chain of food production is all so essential to national security,” he said.

With boots on the ground his first week on the new job, Ogg said, “We’re excited that we’re able to provide this component for our Nebraska 4-H and FFA youth.”

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Wyoming is taking center stage in the fair industry this year. As for the Wyoming State Fair & Rodeo in Douglas, Wyo., Fair General Manager Courtny Conkle aptly put it, “Yes we are on! We received great support from the board of directors and state leadership to have the state fair, and show that people can still gather safely, and show others in rodeo that we can set standards safely in the state of Wyoming.”

Wyoming has a completely different state fair capability, Conkle pointed out. With the design of Wyoming’s largely outdoor venue, with social distancing, Conkle said they could accommodate up to 140,000 people on any given fair day on its 118-acre property. Typically throughout the five-day fair, a total of 60,000 people attend the Wyoming State Fair.

The Wyoming State Fair board of directors voted unanimously on June 9, to hold the Wyoming State Fair this year, pending exception approval from health officials.

“We have been working in conjunction with officials from Converse County Memorial Hospital, Converse County Public Health, Converse County Emergency Management,” Conkle said. “Our county health representatives serve as our liaison with the state epidemiologist.”

Conkle’s team is working on their health and safety plan with the guest experience. “We want people coming to the Wyoming State Fair — and that nobody is scared about any concerns of COVID-19, that it’s still a positive experience for all our fair goers. We continue finalizing the health plan, but the fair is going to take place,” she said.

“We’re lucky to be in a sparsely populated state. The World Health Organization says the best possible public scenario is breeze and sunlight and not to have people on top of each other — as opposed to being confined indoors. This facility is typical Wyoming — a park like setting, with so much space for people to come and enjoy our fair outside. Even our grandstands are covered but they’re outside,” Conkle said. “It’s the responsible thing for us to do — to have the fair.”

A highlight is the PRCA Rodeo on Aug. 14, especially with rodeo being the state sport of Wyoming.

“With many rodeos canceled across Wyoming, it’s been amazing working closely with the PRCA and leadership from the governor’s office, Conkle said. “We’re going to put in extra elbow grease to make it a blow-out event this year.”

New this year is a family show called K-9 Kings, free with fair admission.

“It’s the Ultimate Flying Dog Show,” Conkle said. “As seen on CBS’s Greatest American Dog Featuring the largest meet, greet and pet area, the only comic book heroes, the fastest frisbee dog in the world, multiple trainers and more.”

The approval to hold the state fair melded into an opportunity to roll out a refreshed brand.

“Our new branding is a fresh take on our fair’s heritage,” Conkle said. “We are so proud of the history of the WSF and wanted to capture the depth of our lineage while putting a modern spin on our branding.”

Economically, having the fair is important to help their citizens bounce back faster, she said.

“2020 has been a surreal year for all of us. In the event industry, the economic and community devastation of so many gatherings being canceled is heartbreaking. I believe that the Wyoming State Fair has the ability to be the highlight of summer for the citizens of Wyoming,” Conkle said… “and for the fair industry to showcase that community events can still transpire in a safe and responsible way during these trying times.”

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— Hadachek is a freelance writer who lives on a farm with her husband in north central Kansas and is also a meteorologist and storm chaser. She can be reached at ❖