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Harvest Public Media reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues through a collaborative network of reporters and partner stations throughout the Midwest and Plains.

With Fairs Canceled, States Hope E-Commerce Will Bolster Small Businesses

Seth Bodine / KOSU
Zelma Lasley stands by shelves of peanuts and sweets at the family's farm in Eakly, Oklahoma. The peanuts are typically sold at the Oklahoma State Fair in the Made in Oklahoma Booth.

State fairs across the country have been canceled to prevent the spread of COVID-19, creating big dents in state economies. These fairs often help support small businesses, but some states are turning to e-commerce to help those businesses.

There’s no shortage of peanuts on Loyd Lasley’s farm. Come September, he hopes to harvest about 160,000 pounds of them. Many of the peanuts are roasted and put on shelves at the Made In Oklahoma booth at the state fair. 

With many state fairs across the country being canceled due to COVID-19, many small business owners like the Lasleys will miss out on sales. The family typically makes about $5,000 from sales at the fair every year. It’s not a lot, but it helps, Loyd says. 

One of their specialty goodies is homemade peanut brittle, which Loyd’s mother, Zelma makes with a hundred-year-old recipe she says she received from a local farmers market. 

“There was a lady that came by the farmers market and bought her peanuts, and she gave me her recipe. Said it was 100 years old,” Zelma says. “So I took it and another recipe and put them together and changed it.”

Luckily, their peanut farm, in business since the 1930s, is well established in the community and gets a lot of return customers. They also sell at places like farmers markets and grocery stores. 

For people like Lori Beth McDonald, owner of Okie Bee Farm in Tulsa, the fair cancellations are a big hit to her business. She says she made about $10,000 last year selling her honey and other bee-based products like lotion bars. 

“I may have to close my business before the end of this year because I take in quite a bit at the Tulsa State Fair and the Oklahoma State Fair and they've both been canceled,” McDonald says. 

To help support small businesses, the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry has put $45,000 of CARES money to make an e-commerce site for the Made in Oklahoma site. McDonald says being able to sell products on the website will help with exposure. 

Meriruth Cohenour, director of markets at ODAFF, says the Made in Oklahoma Program helps more than 40 Oklahoma businesses sell their products at the state fair. 

“Thousands and thousands of people walk through the fair trade shows each year. (It) seems to be where a lot of specifically families go to do their holiday shopping,” Cohenour says. “And all that becomes a part of the year. But everything is kind of right there.”

Kansas has a similar program, called From The Land of Kansas. The program’s marketing manager, Janelle Dobbins, says it costs $100 a year for sellers to participate, and many small producers rely on it to sell online. This year, they are going to have a dedicated state fair website, and she says many producers see it as one way to make up lost sales. 

“I think producers are looking at any opportunities of how they can reach consumers … with everything happening,” Dobbins says. 

The Made in Oklahoma site is live, but the e-commerce part is still being developed, and Cohenour says the department hired a company to design it. 

In the meantime, McDonald says with the state fair cancellations, she says she’s trying to adapt by selling to smaller stores and making her own website to sell her products. 

As for the Lasleys, they say they’re still deciding on whether to sign up for the e-commerce site. Loyd says he’s still talking to his family about it, but hasn’t ruled the option out. 

“If I were more computer savvy, I might tackle it myself, but I just really don't know yet,” Loyd says.

Seth Bodine was KOSU's agriculture and rural issues reporter from June 2020 to February 2022.
Harvest Public Media reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues through a collaborative network of reporters and partner stations throughout the Midwest and Plains.
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