At the closing bell of Tuesday's chuckwagon tarp auction, Connie Patterson breathed a sigh of relief.
Chuckwagon races weren't going to be a casualty of the the oil downturn after all .
"I am just relieved," said Patterson, president of the Dawson Creek Exhibition and Stampede Association. "It's rough right now. I'm just happy the chuckwagons are going to be able to come."
Like many small town agricultural fairs, organizers of the Dawson Creek Exhibition have spent months worrying about the oil and gas downturn's impact on chuckwagon races, saddle bronc rides and other rodeo events—all of which are heavily supported by industry.
Sponsoring a tarp—the canvas that covers the wagon—is a good measure of that support, making it an economic indicator in some circles.
Instead of the big drop offs seen in some markets, sales in Dawson Creek were relatively flat this year—down just 10 per cent from 2015. In all, tarp sales for the Dawson Creek Exhibition netted $141,500.
Drivers had been bracing for worse.
Kirk Sutherland, who finished second on the World Professional Chuckwagon circuit last year, brought in $3,750 for his tarp, sold to Dawson Creek's Celtic Construction.
That's about half of last year's take, he said.
"I think we all figured on 50 per cent of what we got last year, and hopefully it'll work out," he said. "Chuckwagon racing has always been very affiliated with the oilpatch. Sponsorship is one of the first things to get cut if you have to cut expenses."
That was reflected at the top, where prices were well below the boom times of three years ago.
In 2013, top seller Kelly Sutherland sold his Dawson Creek tarp for $21,000. This year's top seller was John Walters, whose canvas went for $6,500 to Fort St. John's Arrow Insurance.
Patterson said those who've been in the game longer—Kelly Sutherland has been driving since 1968—are feeling the biggest pinch.
"The ones that are toppling a bit are the older guys," she said. "They're the guys who had the big oilpatch money behind them, and the young guys were just fighting for a position."
Like Dawson Creek, tarp sales for the Calgary Stampede's Rangeland Derby were down, but not nearly as much as some had feared.
In all, sponsorships in Calgary dropped around $480,000 from last year.
Rodeos in small towns, where oilfield service companies are big business, have been hit harder, with many firms closing their doors as work dries up. Both Kirk Sutherland and Patterson said rodeos in High River, Bonnyville and Strathmore—which held their auctions online during the Dawson Creek sale—appeared to be having a tougher time.
Patterson said the Dawson Creek Exhibition would likely use some of its share of the tarp proceeds—around 20 per cent of the total—to sweeten the pot for drivers
"We're going to give a portion back. It's tough traveling," she said. "This is a rough year for them. A lot of the places, they made the minimum."
In the worst case scenario, the exhibition association would have had to buy tarps that failed to top the minimum bid of $2,500.
"If we had to go buy half of those tarps at $2,500, we couldn't have swung it," Patterson said.
Dawson Creek, however, escaped that fate.
"I slept last night for the first time in three nights," she said with a laugh.
Companies stepping back amid drop in investment
As for the oil and gas companies themselves, they're still involved in rodeos across Western Canada, but have had to scale back as revenues decline.
Oil prices have dropped 65 per cent since mid 2014, leading to a 30-40 per cent decline in oil and gas investment, according to the 2016 federal budget, released Tuesday.
"A lot of the bigger oil companies are still going to be with the exhibition, but at a reduced rate," Patterson said.
She said supporting rodeos helps give oil companies a positive image in rural communities—where farmers and oilmen sometimes come into conflict.
"The agriculture people are running the cattle on top of the ground, growing grain. (The oil companies are) interested in what's underneath," she said.
"They're still there, showing their support for agriculture, because agriculture is huge for them. They need to have a good face in agriculture, they always have to show a strong sense of responsibility."
The Dawson Creek Exhibition runs Aug. 9 to 14.