LEESPORT, Pa. — The Reading Fair went on as planned earlier this month, but for many exhibitors, it just didn’t feel the same.
After rain slashed attendance and revenue in 2018, fair organizers concluded a rebuilding year was needed to keep the 165-year-old event afloat.
Gone were the carnival rides and most of the food vendors. A few days were shaved off the normally weeklong schedule. Some of the signs directing people to the fairgrounds were absent.
And though this year’s fair was designed to be laser-focused on agriculture, livestock entries were sharply down as well.
The Aug. 7 dairy show, which ordinarily draws 150 cows, had just 52 cattle, and there were no Guernseys.
Doug Sattazahn, the dairy show chairman, attributed the decline to farmers’ uncertainty over the fair’s future and the struggles in the dairy industry.
Some farmers probably didn’t want to spend the money for showing this year, he said.
But Sattazahn was quick to argue that the caliber of a show shouldn’t be judged by the number of participants.
“I’m happy with the quality that came,” he said.
Rachael Kirkhoff, the dairy beef chairwoman, was shocked that only seven cattle were entered in her show.
The fair board waited an unusually long time to decide if this year’s fair would happen, which she suspects dampened participation in the show.
To qualify for state funding, fair organizers worked hard to get the requisite five entries in each category, Kirkhoff said.
Despite the thin turnout, some of the youths who did attend told Kirkhoff they liked the laid-back feel of the fair, and she personally enjoyed the emphasis livestock received.
“I’m glad we did something for the kids,” she said.
Ideally, agriculture should be the focus at a fair, not the rides or vendors, agreed Tammy Blatt of Robesonia.
“I like it. Everybody is in the barn,” she said.
Blatt was glad the fair was able to preserve the tradition of naming a fair queen.
Natalie Grumbine won the competition and Olivia Lesher was the alternate.
Marissa Spatz, an 18-year-old goat exhibitor from Mohrsville, liked the focus on animal ag, but she’s hoping for a bigger menu in 2020.
“I wish we had a little more food,” she said.
The fair had just one volunteer-run stand serving walking tacos, hot dogs and pulled pork sandwiches.
The Way-Har Farms ice cream trailer, serving milkshakes, was the only other place to nosh.
Shane Martin, 13, of Oley, was content with fair’s size.
“It’s small, not as many people looking at the animals, but it’s fun,” he said.
He enjoyed spending time with his goats and friends, but he thinks a few carnival rides could boost attendance next year.
The Reading Fair has faced challenges before.
The 1999 event was canceled because the fair had broken ground on its current fairgrounds and construction wasn’t done.
This year, fair leaders like Martha Pool, the agricultural director, have been vigorously organizing fundraisers such as a barbecue, baked goods auction and hoagie sale to improve the fair’s finances, Blatt said.
The board will convene at the end of September to debrief this year’s stripped-down fair and consider the options for 2020.
Kirkhoff hopes that the community will continue to support the fair as the board tries to ramp it back up.
The dedication of the exhibitors and sponsors who stuck it out this year gives Sattazahn hope for the fair’s future.
“Everybody is making an effort,” he said.