Pen of goats in a tent at a fair. (Getty Images)
EDITOR’S NOTE: On Aug. 25, the Arkansas Legislative Council restored funds for county fairs to last year’s levels after some lawmakers expressed anger and surprise last month about cuts made by the state Department of Agriculture. Some legislators also questioned the appropriateness of spending taxpayer funds on a private livestock show. The Madison County Record published this story before the ALC action. The Advocate is republishing this slightly edited version with permission because it raises important issues about the handling of public money.
The Madison County Fair will maintain its regular activities this year despite having no advance notice that it would receive significantly less state funding.
The Madison County Fair Association Inc. received almost $50,000 less from the state than it did two years ago. Other fairs faced similar cuts.
Much to the chagrin of legislators, the Arkansas Department of Agriculture reallocated money by cutting funding to all county fairs while adding funding for district fairs, and a new, private organization, Arkansas Youth Expo (AYE), which hosts a livestock show on the Washington County Fairgrounds in Fayetteville Oct. 1-4.
Two years ago, the Madison County Fair received $54,455 from the state; last year, $13,417; this year, $6,045. (The ALC’s action last week will keep this year’s funding at $13,417.) The county fair’s 2021 IRS 990 tax return showed net assets or fund balances of $60,397.
Additional Fair funds
“Madison County was hit the hardest of each county fair that got cut,” according to Hayley-Beth Skelton, director, Arkansas Fair Managers Association.
All county fairs across the state saw budgets cut, while AYE received $48,000.
AYE, a livestock show, is a 501(c)3 corporation started by Eric Walker of Prairie Grove in 2000 and is not a fair. Walker is the owner of Willow Springs Cattle Company and Walker Masonry and Sons Inc., founded by Walker’s father in 1974.
In 2021, funding for rodeos, district junior livestock shows, 4-H and FFA as well as Miss Arkansas Rodeo was cut. Some of that funding was restored this year.
In addition to AYE’s $48,000, each county fair received $6,045; each district fair, $25,700, and Arkansas State Fair $84,000. Under a different funding method, the Arkansas State Livestock Show received $971,908.
Fair funding may be used for “anything relating to the fair; rent, utilities, loans, premiums, construction, etc.,” according to the agriculture department.
“At this time we don’t feel the need to meet with The Madison County Record to discuss our funding,” Madison County Fair Board President Tracie Jackson texted The Record. “In regards to your question about reduced funding, yes it was reduced this year, but we appreciate any help that the Arkansas Livestock and Poultry is able to provide.”
Every other year, the state has allocated “construction funding,” monies used to make improvements to the fair grounds. That funding is in addition to traditional fair funding. County fairs received no construction money this fiscal year.
Madison County received $10,632.43 in construction funding for 2021-2022.
Fallout from the cuts and the additional monies to AYE began raising the ire of legislators and others involved in fairs across the state this summer.
On July 7, Agriculture Secretary Wes Ward texted Deputy Agriculture Secretary Cynthia Edwards that the “Fair topic is blowing up,” and asked if the money had been disbursed.
On July 13, Arkansas Department of Livestock and Poultry Division Director Patrick Fisk sent a text to Ward letting him know he had been yelled at for 45 minutes by someone upset about AYE funding.
On July 20, Rep. Ron McNair, R-Alpena, also reached out to Fisk asking why AYE was considered for $48,000 in state funds.
On July 21, during an Arkansas Legislative Council hearing, legislators grilled Ward, who called the reallocation “frustrating” and “challenging.”
Legislators asked how AYE was funded since it’s not a fair, saying the line item specifically calls for funding fairs.
“Whenever you go outside the fairs, how is that in line with the law?” Rep. Blake Johnson, R-Corning, asked Ward.
Many legislators chimed in that livestock shows are different from fairs, which are inclusive of all animals and crafts and don’t charge entry fees. Madison County provides a carnival and exhibit hall for crafts, something offered by many county fairs.
Skelton said AYE does not meet the criteria of what a fair is “in any way, shape or form.” She said county fairs serve everyone, “Like the little grannies who come in with their quilts and the special needs kids that come and paint their projects. … We’re taking money away from those kids to fund that.”
Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, wanted to know who made the AYE request.
“This whole AYE thing, it’s like a turtle on a fencepost,” King said.
Ward told King he signed off on the funding after a friend of Walker’s, Jeffrey Hall, made the request during the 2023 regular session of the General Assembly.
Walker said he worked with Hall to submit the request.
The Record sent a Freedom of Information Act request asking for the documentation regarding the request, but Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Amy Lyman said, “The Department has no documents responsive to the request.”
Walker said people are upset because “the state took money away from the counties without making them aware.”
“I didn’t take any money. The legislators did,” Walker said. “They hammered on Wes Ward, but they’re very two-faced because … they all passed and voted on it.”
He said he “takes offense at people throwing darts at AYE,” because people who attend are impressed by the livestock show.
Walker said several dignitaries, including Ward, have attended and told him the event is so well done and large that it deserved state funding.
“Two years ago, I invited Wes Ward to come see it because I served on the State Fair Executive Board with Wes. And that’s where I got to know Wes. Okay.
“So I invited Wes up and he came two years ago and saw it and he goes, ‘Oh my gosh. I had no clue what you were doing up here. This is amazing.’”
Walker said former Gov. Asa Hutchinson visited AYE last year.
“And Asa looked at me and said, ‘And you and a bunch of volunteers started this.’ I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ He said, ‘It’s incredible what you guys are doing. I commend you fully.’
“I said, ‘Well, we need help. We don’t have the resources that everybody else has. We don’t have a carnival. We don’t have a gated entrance.”
Hall, who went to college with Walker, visited AYE a year ago and was so impressed with the show he offered to help Walker write the funding request.
“I had no clue how to ask for money from the state. So Jeff did the footwork on how to get it but he was not paid. That was voluntary,” Walker said.
According to emails exchanged between AYE and Ward, Ward and Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders are possible attendees for this year’s event.
Income and expenses
Since 2016, Madison County has received $122,202 in state funding.
On its 2020 IRS Form 990, the association showed contributions of $140,381 and expenses of $190,639 for a deficit that year of $32,616. However, the assets brought forward from 2019 of $141,631, left the fair with net assets of $109,015.
In 2021, the association showed contributions and grants of $245,159, expenses of $184,762, for net assets or fund balances of $60,397.
According to AYE’s 2020 tax form 990, AYE had revenue of $296,128 and expenses of $200,454 and showed net assets or fund balances of $95,674.
In 2021, AYE showed revenue of $405,301 and expenses of $289,545 for assets of $211,430.
AYE receives sponsorships “from places that no other fair in the state of Arkansas could even begin to try to get,” Skelton said. “We’re talking national sponsors, in the sum of $150,000 to $200,000 worth of sponsorship money.”
“It takes us $380,000” to fund AYE each year, Walker said.
Walker said AYE is transparent and posts AYE’s income and expenditures on boards and posters throughout the show. He said AYE’s assets are in equipment used to pen exhibit animals.
In 2021, he said AYE had $6,314 in cash after putting on the show, which includes awarding prizes to exhibitors, renting tents, paying volunteer expenses, spending on facility improvements, webcasting, signs, janitorial, security and bank fees.
“Every dime that is made or raised whether it comes from the state or whether we raise it from private funding, goes back to the kids in some form or fashion whether it’s through prizes, awards. There is minimal monetary return, but there is some,” Walker said.
Entry fees, attendees
Skelton said Walker doesn’t deserve the money because he limits the animals allowed in AYE.
“The Arkansas Youth Expo, which is a three-day jackpot show for strictly market animals. They don’t allow any dairy, any poultry, anything that regular fairs do,” Skelton said.
“Because at the end of the day, somebody can show up at my fair with an alpaca and I’ll find a place for you to show,” Skelton said.
According to Walker, AYE serves the entire state and more than 3,000 children, including children showing 600 beef cows and more than 1,500 hogs. They also include sheep, goats and programs for agri-mechanics and leadership.
“The state fair gets $84,000. We’re just as big as them and we get half of what they get,” Walker said. “And we have no paid employees. State fair has paid employees.”
Walker said AYE is landlocked or it would allow more exhibit animals.
“If Tyson Foods or Walmart would give me $100 million to build a facility that would hold all of that, we would invite you and your gerbil to come attend AYE,” he said.
Walker said county fairs should be funded by counties, not the state. He said he lives in Washington County and can’t exhibit at the Madison County Fair.
“So my rebuttal is you are a county fair. You only allow participants from your county,” Walker said. “But you take state money and fund that county. Why are you not taking county funds and funding your county?”
Skelton said many counties can’t afford to fund their fairs. “And to try to take it away from those kids that are just trying to make ends meet, to take that stance is wrong.”
Skelton said most county fairs do not charge entry fees. Walker said he charges $40 per animal. He said that covers a pen for the animal, family fun night and prizes. He said the livestock show is free to attend.
The state fair charges an entry fee each time you enter and most children attend three times, which could end up costing a family of five $150, but at AYE, you only pay the exhibitor entry fee, Walker said.
“My kids and everybody else’s kids that show livestock in the state of Arkansas get exhibitor passes for them and their family,” Skelton said. “They don’t pay to get in.”
Walker started AYE because Arkansans only show animals in county, district and the state fairs. He said other states provide many more opportunities.
He said he and his family have traveled throughout the United States to different livestock shows and wanted to bring their experiences to Arkansas so children not able to travel can experience a junior national or other similar show.
“I told you I’m a God-fearing man. And I believe God blesses some of us so we can do something special. God has been very good to my family and we are very prosperous and we are very thankful. We give Him all the credit and all the glory because without Him we would not have what we have. But I believe God gave me some of that money and gave me that opportunity so that I could share,” Walker said.
Walker said he supports county fairs and believes all fairs and livestock shows need more funding from the state.
“I want to be very clear on that. We love that there’s county fairs,” Walker said.
“County fairs shouldn’t have lost a dime. AYE deserves their money. They deserve more money than they’re getting but we’re very thankful for any assistance,” Walker said.
Skelton said she agrees county fairs deserve more money, including her fair. “But you don’t see me going in and taking money away from counties, either.”
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