When Leah Jones took the opportunity to lead the revitalization of one of Canada’s top livestock shows, she returned to an institution that had previously played a role in her impressive career.
In addition to his previous work as Director of Agriculture for Northlands in Edmonton, Jones was a dedicated volunteer with the organization for many years and served on its board of directors. There, she brought her professional experience and perspective from the farming industry to help shape the vision of Farmfair International, just as she is doing now as the new director of this prestigious livestock show.
“When the opportunity arose…I was so intrigued and so excited to be back at Farmfair and working with the people I know in the industry that I love,” she says. “I have a great desire to see her succeed again,” says Jones, who raises cattle with her family in Westlock, Alta.
Jones’ passion for farming began on her parents’ mixed beef ranch, where at their height they ran 600 purebred Simmental and Hereford commercial cattle. Her enthusiasm for raising cattle has lent itself well to her time pitching beef projects at 4-H.
“We were four kids, and we were going to have 18 animals to take to Fulfillment Day because we were on every beef project you could be,” she recalls. “Not only me but my family has a great love and passion for livestock.”
While studying agriculture at the University of Alberta, Jones worked in the regional office 4-H in Barhead, Alta, which led her to several professional positions in high-ranking agricultural organizations. This includes corporate sponsorship for the Agricultural Financial Services Corporation, Calgary Stampede’s agriculture and livestock programs, community investment with UFA and municipal economic development roles. Her most recent position was CEO of 4-H Corporation in Alberta.
At the heart of these experiences lie the people involved, and I have found this to be the case in the skill set required to succeed in these organizations. “You have to be able to make connections — so connections with people in the industry, connections with corporate sponsors, connections with organizations that make the business world so special,” she says.
“And you have to be original. You have to be real. So, if you can create those business relationships and those connections, they are very important in terms of achieving your goals.”
A new start for the beloved cattle show
With a history spanning over 45 years, Farmfair International is Alberta’s largest cow fair. But even before COVID-19 forced the cancellation of live events in 2020, the Northlands organization was in limbo, and Farmfair’s future was up in the air.
In June 2021, Explore Edmonton, the city’s destination management and marketing organization, announced that it would formally take over the management of both Farmfair and Klondike Days of Northlands, which went out of business in the summer. These major events, along with the Edmonton Pro Rodeo and Edmonton Urban Farm, now fall under the organization’s signature community and signature event collection.
“With our expanded focus, Explore Edmonton looks to reimagine these events and gathering places to drive more community and stakeholder value than ever before,” the foundation’s website explains.
Later that summer, Explore Edmonton announced that Jones would return to Farmfair International as Show Director, citing her professional experience as an integral part of the re-launch of the event after it was postponed in 2020.
“Lea’s extensive experience in the industry will help position Farm Fair International as a premier Canadian livestock show and will help attract international buyers to our city and support this important regional industry,” said Arlindo Gomez, Vice President of Business Development and Venue Management, in a press release.
With that said, Farmfair 2021 was in the works, with great anticipation from exhibitors who rely on this annual platform to market their genes.
“This was a momentous offering. Explore Edmonton recognizes the value of Farmfair International in terms of the economic impact of the city and region, the importance to exhibitors, the importance of the business being undertaken and the link between rural and urban areas,” says Jones.
“What they have done is they have instilled confidence, they have generated enthusiasm and we are painting a picture of what FarmFair is going to look like forward – not just in Edmonton or even Western Canadian exhibitors, but what it will look like if we put Edmonton and Farmfair International on the global map.”
Organizing a successful comeback
The theme for the 2021 show was “Back in Business,” reflecting the beef industry’s desire to reconnect with each other in person, and was demonstrated in more than 1,000 entries from British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario.
“We are still working on the handshake, and I think people have been really willing to come back to a platform like Farmfair where they can meet face to face and talk about their livestock and show their genes to potential buyers and reconnect or re-establish the relationship they had before the coronavirus,” says Jones.
“So this on-site face-to-face venue was very important to the exhibitors, and they came out strong to seize this opportunity to do business.”
This year’s exhibitors also attracted the significant investment of more than $300,000 in prize money and scholarships awarded during the week, making Farmfair Canada’s richest livestock fair and the richest and most prestigious show.
Another highlight is the continuation of the International Buyers Program, which has had more value at a time when international travel is not as simple as usual. This has been an important part of previous offerings, generating nearly $1 million a year on average over the past decade in international sales, Jones reports, and with the marketing of frozen genes resulting in greater access and value compared to individual live animals.
“This year, we pledged to continue with our international program only because of its importance to exhibitors, and we have had success,” she says. About 20 delegates representing Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Mexico, Scotland, South Africa and the United States traveled to Edmonton to see Canadian genetics for themselves.
“They were massive delegates. Not only did they take part in the show, they actually went back to some farms to look at more offspring around those animals.”
While the final report for the 2021 edition is in progress at the time of writing, the outlook is very positive.
“I think Farmfair 2021 was a huge success. There was a huge positivity with the exhibitors,” says Jones. “We had tremendous support from exhibitors, we got support from company partners, the work was done, and people left the event very satisfied, very happy, sending their compliments to Explore Edmonton and Farmfair.”
After celebrating the success of Farmfair’s return, Jones and her team are looking to the future of the show until its 50th anniversary in 2024. “The goal this year was to have Farmfair strong and successful, and we’ve been able to do just that. Now we’re switching gears…we’re really starting to imagine What is possible We are talking with contacting partners who are interested in doing something with our event.
“So we’re just getting started on what this vision could look like, and once we engage the partners, the community and all the people who need to be involved and know what we want Farmfair to come up with, we’re going to share that for sure. There are different avenues we can go; it’s just identifying one way Then making sure that everything we do, every decision we make goes to support that vision.”
Regardless of the chosen direction, Jones expects Farm Fair’s track record of attracting the best in Canadian beef genetics to remain at the center of the show.
“The province of Alberta has a good reputation for beef and genetics, and I think that’s one of the things we want to put our hat on in terms of reputation and promotion going forward,” she says.
“If you’re serious about business, you should come to Alberta, and Farmfair International provides a platform for the world to come together to talk about those genes and those cattle.”