BELFAST, Maine — Farmers and others who planned to sell their wares at the Common Ground Country Fair later this month expressed both disappointment and relief that the popular event had been canceled on Friday.
The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association announced Wednesday that the fair — which draws 60,000 attendees to Unity every year and was scheduled to take place in two weeks — would not happen in person because of rising COVID-19 cases in Maine.
The last time the fair was held in person was in 2019.
“There was just so much hope put into this year’s fair. It’s such a blow,” said Crystal Sands of Eddington, who was preparing to sell printed copies of her new journal, Farmer-ish, as well as t-shirts and other gear, in the media tent. “But even before they canceled, we were starting to feel anxiety. This was the chance for the journal to make it, but would we get sick? It’s kind of a relief that they had made this difficult decision for us.”
For many Maine farmers, food producers, crafters and more, the three-day fair represents an important income stream that isn’t easily replaceable. Many depend on the cash they can make selling french fries, lemonade, onions rings, pie and other treats to hungry fairgoers tempted by the mouth-watering array of good smells that waft from the food court. There are even some stories of homesteaders whose primary income stream comes from the money they make at the Common Ground Fair.
So canceling the event is a big deal — and a decision that wasn’t made lightly by MOFGA officials.
“The ongoing pandemic, rising COVID-19 cases throughout Maine and valuable feedback from our community have led us to this point,” Sarah Alexander, the executive director of MOFGA, said. “We did not come to this decision easily and know that people will have mixed reactions and emotions, as we all do.”
Officials said they hope to continue with the spirit of the fair by releasing educational videos during the weekend of the fair, continuing its online store and hosting smaller events throughout the fall. They also will reach out to ticket holders for refunds or transition them into donations for the association.
In 2020, the fair was also held online.
Still, Kathy Chamberlain of Searsport, whose Stone Fox Farm Ice Cream has a stand outside the gate by the Northern Solstice Alpaca Farm, said that the cancellation will be very tough for vendors.
“Along with the Maine Lobster Festival, it’s our biggest event,” she said. “For us, it’s lost revenue but because we have a frozen product it will keep until the next event. We are, however, crushed to miss another year due to COVID.”
She said that the cancellation will be tough for her but even harder for vendors who have already ordered organic ingredients and started their preparations for the event, and for those who grew produce to use in their food service or to sell at their farm stands inside the fairgrounds. It also is very hard for crafters and artists who have spent months creating enough products to sell, she said.
“I’m sure there are many, many repercussions to the fair canceling,” she said. “I would love to know what the process was for the decision to cancel two weeks before.”
Marcia Ferry, an owner of Peacemeal Farm in Dixmont, felt that MOFGA could have made a different decision. Her farm sells produce inside the fairgrounds and also plants extra lettuce and herbs for the vendor who runs the falafel stand.
“I am very disappointed,” she said. “It seems like MOFGA could have followed safety precautions. Plus, it’s outside. Last year, it was totally understandable that they canceled the fair. But we know what safety precautions work now.”
But others like farmer Ken Lamson of New Beat Farm in Knox had a different take. His family was getting ready to run their farm stand and also a cider pressing booth at this year’s fair — despite concerns.
“Honestly, we’re kind of relieved,” he said of the cancellation. “We were trying to figure out how to navigate it with our 1 1/2 -year-old daughter. I think everyone would probably feel a lot better if children could be vaccinated.”
Lamson said that he’s not angry that the fair won’t take place, even though it will be a financial loss. And while he feels badly for those who depend on the money they make over the weekend, the last 18 months of the pandemic have taught him a lesson.
“If COVID’s taught us one thing, it’s that you can’t put all your eggs in one basket,” he said.