Jan. 24—For New Hampshire's crafters, artisans and producers of things tasty, useful or unique, the "Big E" — the yearly Eastern States Exposition in West Springfield, Mass — is an extravaganza and a windfall.
Now the call is going out to Granite State makers to sign up for next fall's event, one of the largest agricultural fairs in the country, and a singular opportunity to make New Hampshire — and its signature handicrafts — more widely known.
Jay and Paula Cullen of Londonderry are veteran exhibitors. For 20 years, the Cullens have rented a booth for the fair's duration, slept in a camper for 20 days, selling from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Paula's stock in-trade is snowman family signs — close to 14,000 a year, which she cuts from wood and paints between the months of January and September. She personalizes them with names for the fair's patrons, usually families with children and pets, who come to buy holiday gifts.
"It's a big commitment," said Paula Cullen. But it's also a dream come true. She makes half her annual income in 17 days. "It if it works, it's great. Everything is big at the Big E."
This past September, New England's agricultural grand dame had its second largest attendance ever: roughly 1.5 million people, and New Hampshire Day, on Friday, Sept. 23, had its highest turnout to date, with over 960,000 browsers coming through, according to the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture, which registers Granite State exhibitors.
Dog collars and harnesses, homemade lap desks, clothes and dryer balls produced by a New Hampshire alpaca farm, fishing lures, potholders, sleigh bells, carved wooden figurines, honey sticks, hot sauce and jewelry — the wares run the gamut, and they don't have to be agricultural, just made mostly in New Hampshire.
"We're looking to broadcast anything New Hampshire has to create," said Josh Marshall, director of agricultural development for the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture, Markets and Food. After the Big E was canceled in 2020 because of COVID and emerged in a scaled-down version in 2021, "I've had a lot of outreach for new and unique products you'd have no idea existed."
Especially this past fall, the Big E was a boon for New Hampshire producers hoping to spotlight their goods. "I'd never seen anything like it," said Marshall. "I'm standing on the second floor of the New Hampshire building, and there's a line at 9:50 a.m. that stretched 200 yards out."
Craft fairs organizers across New Hampshire guess that many people turned to crafting during and after COVID, while working remotely, capitalizing on newfound time to explore new hobbies and expand some tried and true ones, bumping their wares to commercial levels.
Since its inception in 1917, The Big E has showcased New England crafters, farmers, artisans, and cottage-level producers, including of foods. New Hampshire's had regular representation in jams and jellies, maple syrup, mustard and hot sauce.
To show and sell at the Big E, no special resume or experience is required, just examples of one's work, and an application that details how it's made and how it represents the Granite State. The agriculture department seeks merchandise that positively reflects New Hampshire, and contributes to tourism and the economy. It cannot come off the internet or be made by someone else, said Marshall.
Booths roughly 120 square feet in size rent for $24 per square foot, and some artisans rent two, Marshall said. Makers who ship or deliver their merchandise for inclusion in the fair's "New Hampshire General Store" pay a portion of their sales, but don't have to show up in person.
"You can be as big or small as you are," Marshall said. For many, the fair is also a marketing event. "It's really impressive to see the scale of it. You're facing a lot of foot traffic and people who remember your business" — sometimes months later, then buy online.
"It's just a great family event," Cullen said. "Every year it grows. They may not be attuned to a certain product one year, then the next year they have grandchildren. You never know."
This year's fair opens Sept. 15 and ends Oct. 1. Applications for booth exhibitors are due Feb. 23. Applications for the New Hampshire General Store are due this spring. For more information on selection criteria and the application process, got to www.agriculture.nh.gov or call 603-271-3688. For information on the Big E., log on to www.thebige.com.