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Fair assessment

May/June 2017 California Bountiful magazine

How can a tradition dating to the 1850s thrive in the 21st century?



In the age of smartphones, Snapchat and selfies, it's fair to ask: Is there still a place in California for that annual tradition known as the county fair?

Short answer: Yes. If you haven't been to one lately, you might be surprised—there's lots to see and do that your grandparents would recognize, and lots that might make you ask: "Where was THIS when I was a kid?"

California's fairs have always celebrated the fruits of the farm. Local Gold Rush-era expos gave way to the first California State Fair, held in 1854 in San Francisco to boost the young state's budding agricultural sector. From that early showcase of record-breaking produce and other curiosities, fairs became hubs of community connection, entertainment and local pride. Today, you'll find 77 fairs spread across most counties in the state, from small country festivals to bustling extravaganzas hosting a million or more visitors. There's a fair somewhere in California nine months out of the year, with most of them clustered from May through September.

You still have your Ferris wheels and midways, corn dogs and cotton candy, livestock shows and baking contests. But you now also have food trucks, children's cooking demonstrations and farm-to-fork experiences—along with T-shirt-launching robots and vertical urban farms.

It's these marriages of the old and the new—carrying on traditions of yore while keeping things fresh—that help many of California's county fairs thrive in the 21st century.


The Big Fresno Fair features classic favorites such as a youth livestock show, left. Showcasing a local high school robotics program, right, is a new addition keeping the fair fresh.

An explosive idea

In Fresno County, organizers of the Big Fresno Fair are finding ways to add a splash of innovation while maintaining the tradition of a larger-than-life showcase of the county's agricultural bounty.

Lauri King, a deputy manager of the fair, said each Fresno County city or town has a booth in the agriculture building featuring locally grown commodities—more than 350 in all.

"Everything from apples and oranges to garlic and wheat, and nuts, cotton—anything that is farmed here in Fresno (County) is on display in that building," King said.

She added that in addition to the 4-H and Future Farmers of America livestock show, the Big Fresno Fair exhibits young people's metal fabrication, woodworking, drawing and other skills. But it all has one theme.

"We tie everything back to agriculture, because we are the No. 1 producing agricultural area in the world," King said.

The earthy roots of the fair met the future last year with the addition of a showcase of a robotic T-shirt cannon designed and built by robotics students from Edison High School in Fresno. The students used the robot to launch T-shirts into an enthusiastic crowd of fairgoers.

"We had the pressure cranked up, so we sent them pretty far," Edison senior Paulo Garcia said. "They seemed pretty hyped up to catch some shirts."

Xiong Cha, an Edison physics and engineering teacher, said a fair representative had heard about the T-shirt cannon and invited the school to participate. He called it a "very positive experience" and said he appreciates how the fair makes an effort to give local people a place to showcase their talents.

Garcia said he hoped the robotics demonstration would help inspire the next generation of students to learn more about science, math and technology. When he's not manning robots, Garcia said he likes to hang out at the fair and enjoy his own annual tradition: "I have to pick up the ice cream from every single shop and see which one tastes the best."


Centennial Farm at the Orange County fairgrounds is open year-round, left. Visitors to the Orange County Fair, right, have a plethora of traditional and modern food choices.

Farming 40 stories high

While Fresno County is adding tech to its ag-focused fair, Orange County is working to refocus its fair on agriculture. The once-rural county southeast of Los Angeles is now largely suburban, although it produced $125.5 million worth of crops in 2015, according to the county agricultural commissioner.

During the next three years, the Orange County Fair will take fairgoers back to the county's farming heyday with a plan emphasizing education and agriculture. With 1.3 million visitors over 23 days, the fair offers the perfect opportunity to educate and engage interactively, fair CEO Kathy Kramer said. This year's theme, "Farm Fresh Fun," focuses on food.

In years past, people united around agriculture by bringing their prize produce to the fair, Kramer said. Fair organizers are working to translate that connection to the 21st-century urbanites who might live in a high-rise. Teaching visitors about hydroponics or how to grow herbs in containers is one way to promote access to fresh produce, with no backyard or large plot of land required.

This year's fair highlights two trends in the food world: fermentation and vertical farming. Fermentation Farms of Costa Mesa, which specializes in making fermented foods and drinks for health benefits, offers cooking demonstrations. Urban Produce of Irvine shows fairgoers how its high-density vertical growing system produces good-for-you greens.

Catching young people's interest early is critical, Kramer said, and to this end the OC Fair now features hands-on cooking demonstrations pairing professional chefs with kids from the audience to prepare healthy dishes.

"We've got a 3-acre working farm on the fairgrounds where we not only have animals, but we have an array of California crops, and we'll be able to pick those crops fresh that morning and then they'll be able to use it in the Kids Can Cook demonstration," Kramer said.


In recent years, the San Joaquin County Fair has brought in BMX bike demonstrations, left, along with traditional elements, right.

Back and better than ever

For some fairs, it's been a rougher road to the present. The San Joaquin County Fair, which had been around in some form since 1850, took a hiatus in 2014 and 2015 in the face of declining attendance. While the fair was dark, young people involved in farming found a way to keep their tradition going.

The 4-H and FFA students took the junior livestock show and auction and carried on as AgFest. Kelly Olds, CEO of the San Joaquin County Fair, said AgFest—once again part of the fair—brings 800-plus young people and their animals to the fairgrounds. This, he said, is the main traditional element of the fair.

Of course, he added, the fair wouldn't be complete without the carnival and the fair food. But as times and tastes evolve, so does the meaning of the term "fair food." The San Joaquin County Fair took advantage of the burgeoning mobile-cuisine trend to drive attendance at last year's reborn event. Its Food Truck Alley featured six of the region's eateries on wheels and boasted "some pretty gourmet items," Olds said, such as lobster, Thai food and Italian food.

Smitty's Wings & Things, a popular eatery featured on the Food Network show "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives," also did its part to boost the local-food profile of the fair. The Stockton restaurant shuttered its location during the fair's 2016 run and served its chicken wings at the fair instead.

Now that the fair is back, Olds solicits suggestions from his customers, looking for ideas with mass appeal.

"We take the suggestion and run with it, and try to bring things to the people that they want to see," he said.

With fresh food and fresh ideas, fairs should have no trouble building on their 160-year tradition.

Kevin Hecteman

Year-round hot spots

When the fair wraps up and the midway hits the road, county fairgrounds don't just go to sleep. Many of their operators have found ways to keep the joint jumping year-round.

The San Joaquin County fairgrounds is home to an annual asparagus festival and the X Fest music festival, as well as the San Joaquin Kennel Club dog show, car shows, a bingo hall, dance troupes, events such as weddings and quinceañeras—even an archery academy and a truck-driving school.

In Orange County, organizers honored the history of the county's fairgrounds, which occupies the site of a former World War II Army air base, with the opening of Heroes Hall in February. The hall is housed in a renovated 1942 barracks and features exhibits telling the stories of the air base and Orange County veterans. The fairgrounds also boasts the 3-acre, working Centennial Farm, open year-round and visited by about 100,000 schoolchildren annually.

The Big Fresno Fair has also made a big splash in the present with a nod to the past. The fairgrounds is home to the Fresno County Historical Museum, an achievement that landed the fair a coveted Merrill Award from the Western Fairs Association. The museum hosts exhibits from the local athletic hall of fame, fire department, historical society and law enforcement agencies, among others.


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