Putting agriculture back in the county fair experience

Oct 30, 2012

Fairs in California have come a long way from their agricultural roots. Originally created as a showplace for recently harvested crops and livestock raised by youth, fairs now are focused on entertainment, shopping and just about anything deep-fried or on a stick.

UC Cooperative Extension and the Fairs and Expositions branch of the California Department of Food and Agriculture teamed up this summer to host meetings at seven county fairs to see how to bring back the quaint agricultural flavor of decades past.

Penny Leff, UC Cooperative Extension agritourism coordinator, and Diana Paluszak of Fairs and Expositions brought together small-scale farmers, fair officials, tourism bureau representatives and others for the regional meetings.

“We need to keep the agricultural heritage of our fairs alive,” Leff said. “There isn’t a pot of money for this, so developing partnerships and working together is important.”

The final meeting of the 2012 season took place at the Big Fresno Fair in October. Even though it is located in the No. 1 ag county in the world, fair visitors would be hard-pressed to find anything farm-fresh to eat.

Big-name bands, horse racing, a brightly lit midway, and endless food booths hawking cotton candy, chocolate-dipped ice cream cones, foot-long corn dogs and cinderblock-sized tangles of curly fries, are the hallmarks of fair time. Students visiting the fair on field trips are kept out of the livestock building for health and safety reasons. The agriculture building is an impressive, but untouchable, produce display.  

“I love the Fresno Fair’s ag building,” said Elisa Hays, creator of ‘The Cutest Show on Earth,’ which contracts with the Fresno Fair and many other fairs in California and Texas to provide what it calls agritainment. “It’s a beautiful art gallery for fruit and vegetables. But it’s not interactive. It needs whimsy and fun.”

Nori Naylor of Naylor’s Organic Family Farms in Tulare County, one the program participants, said she would like to see more emphasis at the fair on individual farms and farmers, and find a way to give visitors the opportunity to try fresh fruits and vegetables grown in the area. For more of Naylor’s thoughts, see the video clip below.

Some California communities have been successful in changing fair culture. The Marin Fair includes a certified farmers market and all food vendors are required to offer something healthful. The Yolo County Fair hosts an opening night gala with more than 50 farms and local food vendors handing out samples of their products.

Ideas about how fairs can help expand awareness and build support for local farms were raised at the conferences. In Tehama County, for example, small-scale farmers have rent-free access to a “marketplace,” where they can sell local produce. The California State Fair included a greenhouse demonstration of “aquaponics,” in which vegetables and fish are raised with recirculating water that complements each other's nutrient and water treatment needs.

Fairground facilities can also support small-scale farmers in the off season.

In Tulelake, for example, the fairgrounds will be the site of farmworker housing for the strawberry industry. In Calaveras County, organizers are considering building a meat processing facility so small-scale ranchers can have their grass-fed beef prepared for market. The kitchens at fairgrounds could be used as incubator kitchens for small-scale farmers who wish to produce value-added products but don’t have access to commercial facilities.

Leff and Paluszak are in the process of planning a mobile agricultural education exhibit to be displayed at four urban fairs in 2013.

“We hope to have something specific to each local fair, plus farmers markets, community supported agriculture, and agritourism information,” Leff said. “We plan to have interactive activities, farm fresh food to buy and opportunities to meet farmers in the area.”

Leff gives an overview of the 2012 program in the video clip below.

By Jeannette E. Warnert
Author - Communications Specialist