Dusty Sonnenberg talked with Julia Woodruff, an account officer with Ag Credit, at the 2023 Huron County Fair.

The unique community and commerce of county fairs

By Matt Reese

The 2023 county fair season is still going strong around Ohio as communities gather together to celebrate agriculture, youth and each other. It does not take any visitor to a county fair long to see how the local community rallies around the event. Each county or independent fair has its own unique niche within the local business community, especially with regard to agribusinesses.

Many businesses pour so much into county fairs as a part of their marketing efforts, but also because they truly love the events.

Dusty Sonnenberg recently talked with Julia Woodruff, an account officer with Ag Credit at the 2023 Huron County Fair. Woodruff grew up in Huron County 4-H competing at the county fair and now her children do as well. She has also served as a 4-H advisor in the county for many years. In her role at Ag Credit, she gets to be involved in a new capacity as a supporter of the fair. 

“Ag Credit is a strong believer in building the relationships with our member borrowers and that starts at a young level by being involved in our rural communities,” Woodruff said. “So much of the 4-H and FFA activity takes place here at the fair and we are here to support, sponsor and also to be involved. You’ll find Ag Credit members out here as 4-H advisors, we will be serving lunch at the Cattlemen’s on Wednesday and Ag Credit also sponsors the pedal tractor pull for our youngest members. I’ll tell you this Huron County Fair holds a special place in our hearts and for the 4-H and FFA members here.”

Many agribusinesses find unique ways to get involved in county fairs. For example, Ohio Ag Net works with Axis Seeds to donate $2,000 checks to several junior fair boards around Ohio each summer. In addition, Ohio Ag Net and Ohio’s Country Journal work withFarm Credit Mid-America’s “Fight the Hunger, Stock the trailer” events with Ohio junior fair boards to collect food for area food pantries and NACHURS Liquid Fertilizer sponsors Ohio Ag Net remotes at county fairs as well.

Dale Minyo worked with Axis Seed as they donated $2,000 to the Ross County Jr. Fair Board this summer.

The list of local business sponsors is always long for any successful building project at a fair and event sponsors for fairs are also common in local business communities. Nowhere, though, is the incredible support of local businesses more apparent than at the junior livestock sales at county and independent fairs around the state. Auctioneer Johnny Regula has been selling at county fairs around Ohio for decades and continues to be amazed at the support from local agribusinesses at the sales.

“You know, there’s nothing better than a county fair. I mean seriously, this is as americana as you get,” Regula said. “Thanks to the buyers that come to county fairs. You don’t realize that, for some of these buyers, the majority of their advertising dollars for the year are spent at the county fair. That’s very prevalent in every county that you go to that the majority of the dollars that they spend advertising are actually spent at the county fair.”

In many cases, those buyers have been supporting junior fair exhibitors for many years.

“I mean God bless those who have come forever and ever,” Regula said. “Over at Sydney for the Shelby County Fair, they have a great tradition that every year they pass out plaques to buyers for every five years. I’ve sold there 47 years now and but they passed out plaques the other day for people that have bought for 65 consecutive years.”

Many of those long-time buyers have strong roots in agriculture.

“We in agriculture are less than 2%, right. The buyers that come and support these boys and girls at these county fairs are the core group that understand why they’re there and it’s a thank you to the families for doing business and what have you,” Regula said. “On the same token, if you really sit and think about it, if you took all the businesses in the county and those that show up to buy at the county fair, I’ll bet you it’s around 2%. In agriculture we always talk about how we take care of ourselves. You know the old saying about farmers buy retail and sell wholesale, but even though that may be, it’s still those that show up to county fairs who appreciate agriculture.”

And, as agriculture has changed, the junior livestock projects at county fairs have evolved as well, along with the communities and buyers who support them.

“It seems as though we have more new buyers that come in at some fairs. You know when we go over to Bellefontaine for the Logan County Fair, my goodness I think they announced there were 91 new buyers,” Regula said. “We’re selling probably more small animals projects now than we do large animal projects on a percentage basis in some counties. So what’s happened is they’ve got their neighbors involved to come and bid. They’ve watched these boys and girls raise these small animal projects in their backyards or whatever it may be. They’ve gotten interested and they come and help buy them. That’s awesome. It’s exciting to see this new generation of buyers.”

Buyers are also finding new ways to support junior fair livestock exhibitors.

“Back when I was in 4-H many moons ago, I went through the sale ring four times — however many projects I had we sold them all. Well now at many fairs, we sell each exhibitor once,” Regula said. “Several of the counties have come up with this ticket program where those who are there to support that exhibitor and that exhibitor’s family, they join together on one ticket. They all put their names on the ticket. There’s not really what I would call competitive bidding, but they’re still covering their customers and showing appreciation by supporting the exhibitors.”

No matter the specifics, local fairs give local businesses unique opportunities to support the local community of young agriculturalists. Regula encourages everyone involved with the county fair — and the Ohio State Fair —to take note of all of those buyers and supporters and, when the time comes, to support them as well.

“For all you moms and dads of these 4-Hers, and grandmas and grandpas of every exhibitor that came through this fairgrounds in the last 12 days, if you go to buy your goods and services and don’t deal with these folks right here, I hope you have a flat tire,” Regula said as he wrapped up the 2023 Sale of Champions. “I mean that sincerely. I hope you have a flat tire.”

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