On a recent afternoon in Tillamook, high school senior Alli Dixson handed out marshmallow treats to her pigs. She bought her first piglet from the state fair five years ago and has been breeding them ever since.
“I have six show pigs right now, between me, my sister and then a family friend that’s keeping their show pig here. I also have two lambs," she said. "Then my sister has her market goat here.”
Work starts early every morning for Dixson. First, she feeds the pigs and then the exercise begins.
"So I will walk my pigs once a day, up and down the road, for about at least a half an hour. Just to get them trained and exercised," she said. "With my sheep, I jump them over barrels to get them moving, 15 to 20 minutes a day.”
There are also evening feedings and enclosure cleanings. She said the hard work teaches everything from responsibility to economics. “You’d pay $250 for a pig. It can range anywhere from $200 to $400 depending on what you buy. And then raising it from a piglet to market weight takes about six months typically. A bag of feed depending on what quality you’re feeding can cost about $20 to $25. And pigs typically eat about 10 lbs a day. So you go through about a bag and a half a week.”
That means a piglet plus its food can cost about $600 to raise it for market. It can then be sold for maybe $1,500. But that’s at a regular market. A county fair can double that price, if a student wins a ribbon for example, or if they come from a well-known family.
Dixson admits the auction can be a bit of a popularity contest, “At times, it definitely is. You have the big-name families that can do better than others, but your work that you put in definitely shows.”
The auction is a way to help kids pay for college. So when it was announced fairs would be canceled this year, Dixson was upset, “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cried just because I’m stressed about how much work I put in and then just the idea that it wouldn’t, nothing would happen with it.”
She said it’s not just the money that upset her, it's the loss of the whole fair experience.
But Oregon Gov. Kate Brown's office has now given county fairs like Tillamook's permission to host 250 people — providing safety measures are enforced. That's still a massive drop, considering 77,000 people came to see Tillamook's Pig and Model T Ford races and other events last year.
But at least there’ll be something, said local fair manager, Camy Von Seggern, “I think it’s just important that we have something for our community. We deserve it. We all want this time. And we don’t want to miss out on having an annual fair, no matter what it looks like.”
Von Seggern said every county is different, so Tillamook is asking the governor to allow them to split their 60-acre fairgrounds into several different areas — each with its own bathrooms, entrances and exits. That way they could host other fair staples, like prize vegetable competitions and textile displays.
“So we’re hoping that that will be heard. And that is our plan," she said. "We will do whatever is required in order to host something.”
Von Seggern said there’s also a plan for a drive-through fair, where people can get the experience without getting out of their cars, “So what we were looking at was doing things like farm implements and bringing back some of the old tractors, things like that.”
Von Seggern said there might also be a classic car cruise-in, musicians, the Dairy Women’s Association’s traditional ice cream tasting — anything to keep the fair alive.
She doesn't think they'll charge the usual $10 entrance fee and expects to generate less than 10% of the usual fair revenue, “It will impact whether or not we’ll be able to operate for the rest of the year. I don’t know what that means at the moment with our staff.”
All county fairs are having a problem according to Bart Noll of the Oregon Fair Association. He travels around Western states racing pigs at fairs where they jump hurdles for cookies. He was minutes from starting his first show for the season in Arizona when the state's governor stopped large gatherings.
“So we packed everything back up, drove back to Eugene and that’s where we’ve been ever since,” said Noll.
He’s about to lay off his employees, but he says county fairs will survive. They’ve even dealt with something like the virus before. Back in the 1990s, there was concern kids were getting sick from E. coli bacteria after petting animals, then eating food.
Noll said they reduced public animal handling and set up an exhibit, “People could go and wash, and then put their hands under a black light and see how effectively they’d washed their hands.”
Back at Alli Dixson’s pig pens, she’s happy there’s going to be a show. But the auction won’t be live, it’ll be done online.
“So normally our auction is on the Friday night of the fair. Coming to the end. Everyone’s been working hard all week. The whole community shows up basically, all the businesses are there. Kids have been sending letters, delivering them, asking people to come look at the animals, maybe buy them," she said.
"It’s just going to be a really different environment, with people just looking at pictures and picking a pig to buy or whatever animal.”
The big question is: Will an online auction generate the usual bidding wars? Organizers are placing their hopes on the one thing that hasn’t changed: Anything paid above fair market value for an animal is still considered a charitable donation. So Grandma can help with college and still get a tax write-off.
And because inquiring minds will want to know, Grandma doesn't usually take possession of her new animal. It's usually sent straight to the butcher where the meat is either sold or sent home to Grandma’s freezer.