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Royal Agricultural Winter Fair cancels in-person events for second straight year, pivots to online learning
July 15, 2021

The annual Royal Agricultural Winter Fair has cancelled its in-person events for the second straight year, citing uncertainty if there’s another surge in COVID-19 cases.

While the province is slowly reopening as its economy -- including movie theatres and gyms this Friday as part of Step 3 of the recovery process -- organizers of the November fair chose to pivot to online learning for another year.

“There are just too many uncertainties at this time,” the fair’s CEO Charlie Johnstone told the Star in an interview Wednesday.

“We don’t know how long we’re going to be in Stage 3 -- if we’re going to be moving to a Stage 4 or what, what the reopening plans are exactly.”

A beloved Toronto tradition since 1922, the event is the largest combined indoor agricultural fair and equestrian competition in the world.

The fair is home to such time-honoured traditions as the giant vegetable competition, where farmers display the biggest pumpkins, cabbages, kohlrabi and other huge produce they grow.

Johnstone hopes the annual event, which draws about 300,000 people every November to Exhibition Place, will come back bigger than ever for its centennial celebration next year.

The fair is believed to be one of the first major events on the city’s calendar in the fall to change its plans. In May, the City of Toronto had already cancelled annual staples such as the Canadian National Exhibition, Taste of the Danforth and Caribbean Carnival for a second straight summer due to COVID-19 risk.

Mayor John Tory acknowledged the uncertainty despite the province heading into Step 3, which allows for larger gatherings and organized events.

“I spoke to the Royal Agricultural Fair organizers and was hoping the decision would be different but in an effort to plan for the future, and with caution involving health circumstances and contracts, this unfortunate decision was made to cancel this year’s in-person component,” he told the Star in a statement.

“I completely understand the decision and know that it takes a lot of pre-planning for events this size.

“The Royal is a staple fall event in Toronto and I am confident that next year we’ll be able to enjoy a bigger and stronger fair in-person to celebrate its 100th anniversary.”

With more than 200 competitions, Johnstone explained that the fair was unlike other events.

“Our competitors need to train, they need to prep their animals and prepare to compete,” Johnstone said.

In an interview with the Star in February, Johnstone had been optimistic for reopening this year. But concerns over a fourth wave of the virus, and the uncertainty that would cause, changed those plans.

“What we’re going to be doing is taking the elements that worked really well last year, specifically as it relates to the education components for teachers, guidance counsellors and students, and really emphasize that all-around, curriculum-based education related to agriculture and food,” Johnstone said of this year’s fair.