Magic spell: Can the County Fair really bring rain?

Question: How do you predict when it will rain in August?

Answer: What date is the Albemarle County Fair?

Even in a drought year, there's an amazing consistency to the county fair's ability to conjure rain. The day the fair opened, the sky darkened and began gentle spitting. By the second day– Wednesday, August 28– the rain came down in earnest, and the fair had to close for the night.

Threats of rain for the rest of the week kept away so many fairgoers that gate and amusement receipts were 25 percent below 2001 numbers, says fair president Barbara Shifflett.

By comparison, last year was a good year– it rained only once, and the fair didn't shut down, unlike in 1999 and 2000, when heavy downpours caused the fair to lose money.

Why is the fair so plagued? "It's just poor luck," says Shifflett philosophically.

The Hook went to state climatologist Pat Michaels, who suggests that the fair harness its rainmaking abilities.

"They're a very effective rainmaker," jokes Michaels. "They should hire themselves out."

If it's any consolation to those unpaid volunteers who put on the fair each year, Albemarle isn't the only end-of-summer festivity that regularly suffers from bad weather. Michaels points out that the Virginia State Fair, held in September, is "notorious for being rained out."

September is typically a dry month, says Michaels, especially if no tropical storms make landfall. But just as the state fair can find rain in a dry month, "Albemarle County can find rain in a drought. These aren't little showers. When you have an Albemarle County Fair, the rain is serious."

In contrast to Albemarle's poor run, the opposite is the case in Augusta County.

"I have the authority to speak on that," brags Michaels, "because I've won First Place in the Pumpkin Quality competition for the past five years." Even this year, when Michaels' pumpkins were affected by the drought? "Everyone else's were worse."

So is there any scientific explanation for why the Albemarle County Fair has been so unfortunate in its rain dates? "Who says we have to be able to explain everything?" quips Michaels. "Obviously it's pure witchcraft."

Shifflett doesn't want to count on the good graces of witches or rain gods. After the 1999 and 2000 fair "put us in the hole," the fair didn't break even on its $150,000 budget, she says.

"It's always a struggle with the weather, and one-third of our budget goes to putting up the big tents every year," she says. Shifflett wants a permanent facility.

"We're looking for 100 acres," she says. Fair organizers want to build a community center that could be used by 4-H groups and as a concert facility. "That's our dream," Shifflett says.

As bummed as organizers are that this year's fair was a wash, there are some who are quite happy with the way it turned out. "It's gotten us pretty popular with farmers," says Shifflett. "They want us to run in June, July, and August."

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