Equestrians with Marion County 4-H compete at the Oregon State Fairgrounds on Tuesday, July 6, 2021, ahead of the county fair. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Fair coordinators have to have a bit more than a barn to put on a show. 

About 30 days after the Marion County Fair closes the gates and the tents come down, planning begins for the next year. Animal shows have to be coordinated, acts booked and food vendors assigned. 

“It’s a lot of work,” said fair event coordinator Jill Ingalls. 

By January of this year, the fair board had created not just one fair plan, but five in an attempt to keep up with possible Covid restrictions that would impact everything from crowd sizes to food and beverage plans. 

By April, nine plans were ready and waiting.

“We planned all year long,” Ingalls said. “We worked much harder to come up with creative ways to have a fair and some of those plans were all virtual, some were hybrid and some were closer to normal.”

This year’s fair has landed squarely in the “closer to normal” category as Oregon’s Covid restrictions have been pulled back thanks to a 70% vaccination rate and a slowing of reported cases. 

The fair begins July 9 and runs through July 11. It will feature carnival rides, a dog costume contest, dancers and plenty of music.

But not everything will be the way it used to be. 

Because the fair was juggling nine different plans, organizing the traditional 4-H portion of the event came down to the wire. 

“At some point we decided on this plan of day shows and stuck with it,” said 4-H program coordinator Melanie McCab. 

Animals will be hauled in, shown, and hauled out rather than sticking around all weekend for fairgoers to admire. It’s an improvement over last year’s virtual market–where kids had to videotape themselves presenting their animals–McCab said, but it’s still not ideal. 

“The fair is all about that sense of community, having a shared interest and being able to share their projects that they worked so hard on with the public,” McCab said. “With the single-day shows they don’t have the interaction with the public.”

Tori Turner, 17, still thinks the experience is worth it. 

Turner has been showing animals for about 10 years and this year, she’s bringing two horses–Weeko, an Arabian quarter horse and Dutch, a quarter horse. 

“I’ve been working with Weeko since he was three and Dutch since he was four,” Turner said of the horses who are now 13 and six, respectively. 

“This year’s fair is definitely better than last year’s,” she said. “It’s still not what I’m used to but I’m happy we are able to get out and show again.”

And that was the priority, Ingalls said–to get kids showing again. 

“Even if we couldn’t have a full blown fair,” she said, “we had to get something closer to normal for the kids.”

Closer to normal this year also means live bands. Instead of big names, local performers will take the stage and other acts will be leaving the stage all together and taking to the crowds. 

“We were able to spend some money on ground acts,” Ingall said. “We’ll have a one-man band and stilt walker which is so fun because the kids get to walk up to this person on stilts and in bright colors rather than just watch people on stage.”

Kids will also get to take advantage of Family Day on Sunday which is set to feature ukulele lessons, superheroes and a kids comedy show. 

“People are ready to come out and play,” Ingalls said of the interest being generated by the fair. 

As of Tuesday, presale ticket numbers were showing about three times the average. 

But that doesn’t mean the fairgrounds, which usually welcomes between 20,000 and 30,000 people over the fair weekend, will be throwing caution to the wind in terms of crowds in the age of Covid. 

“As a fair coordinator, you want a packed fairgrounds with people shoulder-to-shoulder because that’s the experience,” Ingalls said. “But we can’t do that this year and luckily, we use the state fairgrounds which is bigger so we can spread out.”

The traditional venue came in handy this year, but using the state fairgrounds was not a guarantee. 

The state was using the fairgrounds as a vaccination clinic and, until recently, Ingalls said the fair board wasn’t sure where the event would fit in. 

“That was part of the different plans,” she said. “What buildings would we use if the vaccination clinics couldn’t get out of the way?”

“It worked out,” Ingalls said, with vaccine clinics closing and vaccinations moving to other venues. “I’m really pleased with this year’s offerings.” 

Schedule and ticket information can be found at marioncountyfair.net

Contact reporter Caitlyn May at [email protected].

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