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A Common Ground Fair like never before

By Fran Gonzalez | May 12, 2020
Source: File photo Fair-goers enjoy the 2019 Common Ground Fair. This year will see a virtual event to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Unity —

The largest organic fair in the country, The Common Ground Fair, which drew 58,000 people last September, will be offering a virtual experience this year.

In a May 5 press release, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association said the decision not to have a physical fair this year was based on hearing from the community, the MOFGA board and fair steering committee, as well as direction from the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

MOFGA Executive Director Sarah Alexander said in an email to The Republican Journal May 6 that the decision was not taken lightly and that much planning had already gone into the fair for this year.

“Ultimately, the uncertainty of being able to have a large gathering in the fall, along with the economic impact of a late cancellation for our farmers, exhibitors and vendors, led us to make the decision now so we can have enough time to create a successful alternative event,” Alexander said.

The fair, which started in 1977 and educates and advocates for organic agriculture, has over 600 exhibitors and vendors and over 775 educational talks and demonstrations each year. “While some may not be able to participate virtually, we’re hopeful that we can include many of those people in some way,” she said.

According to the Portland Press Herald, local reaction ranged from surprise to dismay. Some were happy that they would not have to deal with the fair’s traffic. Others who enjoy the fair expressed disappointment that it had been canceled.

Unity Selectman Penny Picard Sampson said her initial thought was that it was premature to not have the fair. But with all the planning and advertising needed to make an event this large happen smoothly, and with all the unknowns at this time, it does make sense, she said.

Sampson said businesses that will be impacted the most in her town are convenience stores like The Depot Store, eateries like Mammie's, Dunkin' Donuts and Unity House of Pizza, and retailers like Unity Pond Pottery and especially Northern Solstice Alpaca Farm.

"I think vendors at the fair will also be negatively impacted." she said. "It also coincides with alumni/parent weekend at (Unity) college, and I wonder if that will still happen."

Corry Pratt of Northern Solstice, located across from the fairgrounds, said her losses will be in the thousands. "We definitely make a lot of money from the event," she said, "with all the people passing by."

Pratt owns and operates the business with her wife, Robin Fowler Pratt. "We also rent space to vendors that don't get into the fair," she said. Last year they had 17 vendors with 10-by-10-foot tents on their farm.

As a means of self-promotion, they also offer free golf-cart rides to weary fair participants, taking a route that shows off their alpaca farm.

"It brings in business from Christmas and beyond," she said.

Lately, Pratt has been thinking outside the box, with a lighthearted way to get her farm's name out in the remote-meeting market. "You can have an alpaca show up in one of the boxes in an app like Zoom," she said. "It lightens the mood and people have been very receptive." The service is free, she said, and all they ask is to be able to show the farm's website somewhere.

Wendy Esposito owns and operates Unity Pond Pottery in town with her husband, Robert. She said their business will be “hugely” affected by the decision not to have the in-person fair this year. “This is our event of the year,” she said.

For the past 22 years on the fair weekend, the Espositos have had a large open house with a sale they have named BUMUPPFSF, which includes demonstrations and free pottery lessons. Wendy said that over the years, area crafters have given demonstrations of their work and it has become a large event.

“It’s a lot of fun,” she said. “We will miss it, and the people will miss their lessons.”

“It will definitely affect our income for sure,” she said. This on top of an already declining wholesale market which Wendy said is the biggest part of their business. People purchasing wholesale have placed their orders on hold, she said.

“It’s really disappointing,” Wendy said, but added that she realizes the importance of the decision. “I’m glad they made the decision — it would be unsafe.”

The Espositos have decided not to open their shop in May and instead have been concentrating on making physical changes at their store in light of social distancing requirements. “It’s hard to know what to do,” she said, and added, if people ask about their seconds-sale, they could be persuaded to open in June.

Alexander said the extent of the economic loss to MOFGA is still undetermined.

“We’re still figuring out the financial implications, and this does represent a pretty significant part of our annual budget,” she said. “We’re hopeful that the community will come together to support our ongoing work and mission, and that we may be able to raise some funds through the virtual fair.”

Alexander said MOFGA is still in the early planning stages of the virtual fair and did not know exactly what it will look like yet.

“We're going to go through each area of the fair, from livestock to children's activities to our speakers and demonstrations, and see which parts our coordinators and volunteers want to adapt to a virtual presence,” she said. “We're excited to create a one-of-a-kind event that could draw an audience from all over the world.”

Each year, the Common Ground Country Fair takes place on the third weekend after Labor Day. Next year’s event will mark MOFGA’s 50th anniversary, and organizers are looking forward to having a large in-person celebration.

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MOFGA Executive Director Sarah Alexander (Courtesy of: MOFGA)
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