Califonia Bountiful

California fairs

May/June 2009 California Country magazine

Rooted in agriculture and focused on fun, fairs are a way for Californians to reconnect with the state's farming and ranching heritage.

Ferris wheels. Funnel cakes. Carnival games.

While those images might be among the first to come to mind as fair season hits its stride, fairs actually originated as agricultural festivals and have a continuing mission to promote the awareness of agriculture. The reason here in California is clear: Beyond the hustle and bustle of the big cities and crowded highways, family farmers and ranchers in the Golden State grow 350 different food, fiber and floral products, making California the fifth-largest supplier of agricultural commodities in the world.

Building on a tradition spanning more than a century and a half, today’s fair is the perfect way for Californians to reconnect with their agricultural roots.

It all began in 1854, when the California Legislature created the State Agricultural Society to promote California’s reputation for farming and ranching. Shortly afterward, California hosted its first official fair, held in San Francisco. After many location changes, the exposition eventually found a permanent home in Sacramento and became known as the California State Fair.

“Like many state fairs across America, the California State Fair is located in the capital city. It is a central location that can command the attention of elected state officials and attract the support needed to support its roots in agriculture,” explained Norb Bartosik, chief executive officer and general manager of the California State Fair. “And, while it still is a part of the current-day fabric of the community, the state fair has become the melting pot for all to gather and learn, recreate and showcase in modern times.”

Today there are 80 different fairs in California. Fifty-four are District Agricultural Associations, which are state government entities and have board members appointed by the governor. Twenty-three are county fairs, which are county government or not-for-profit organizations. Two are citrus fruit fairs and the remaining one is the California State Fair.

Although the size and scope of fairs across California vary greatly, they are all made up of similar components that draw fairgoers out of their homes and to their local fairgrounds where they can enjoy the exhibits, munch on fair food, see the livestock or attend a rodeo, concert or horse race.

According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, more than 9.1 million people attended a fair in 2007, the latest year for which figures are available. Total attendance of fairs has decreased only slightly in the last few years, demonstrating that even in tough economic times, Californians are still eager to spend time with family and friends in a wholesome and traditional way.

“People attend fairs because they offer a true sense of community, which is difficult to find these days given the fast pace of life and the constant urgency of change,” said Mike Treacy, director of fairs and expositions for the California Department of Food and Agriculture. “During trying economic times, fairs usually do very well in attracting people to attend and participate in exhibit programs and competitions.

“People don’t have the money to spend on expensive vacations and travel, so they stay home more often,” he added. “Fairs offer the perfect opportunity to stay in your local community, but to go out and have fun with your friends, neighbors and relatives.”

In order to keep attracting fairgoers, however, Bartosik points out that fairs must continue to mirror their changing communities.

“They need to offer things that have the tradition of old and new programs that meet the changing demographics in cultural programs, education, entertainment and a new learning curve for the urban folks who still want to learn about agriculture,” he said. “As we say here, our patrons truly learn that chocolate milk doesn’t come from brown cows.”

A traditional approach to educating fairgoers about agriculture is through livestock competitions, exhibitions and auctions.

Many fairs also serve as an outdoor classroom of sorts for the young people raising the livestock. The junior livestock program at these fairs gives youth—primarily members of 4-H, Future Farmers of America (FFA) and Grange—the unique opportunity to competitively exhibit and auction their livestock on the open market.

“Through showing livestock at fairs around the state, I’ve gained more knowledge and skills than just how to raise an animal and show it at the fair,” said Brad Mendes, a long-time junior livestock program participant from Modesto. “I was able to learn how the agriculture industry really works. It has given me a perspective of the real world, from economy to ethics.

“For me, the most important thing that I will take from my time in the show ring will be the importance of relationships with your peers and industry leaders.”

While the junior livestock program is tailored toward youth with a passion for animals, the judged exhibits are broad with agricultural and artistic-related competitions that are open to the public. These exhibit programs, which can include anything from sewing to cooking to painting, focus on promoting excellence with rewards.

According to a California Department of Food and Agriculture survey, the state’s 2002 fair season saw more than 613,000 exhibits, resulting in a total of $4.2 million paid in fair premiums. Nearly 70 percent of fairgoers surveyed said they felt they knew more about agriculture aft er going to the fair.

Although livestock and judged exhibits tend to be favorites at fairs across the state, there are plenty of other things for young and old to enjoy.

At the carnival, you can ride the carousel, win a stuffed animal or sample unique fair food like funnel cakes and corn on the cob. And just when you think you’ve had your fill of fun, it’s time to take in the entertainment. Whether it’s a strolling performer like a juggler or clown or a headline performer on a main stage, you can bet you’ll see something you’ve never seen before.

Historians believe the first fair can be traced back to Tyre, an ancient Phoenician city in Lebanon around 500 B.C. Merchants traveled from far-off countries with native wares to trade with each other.

In the Bible’s Old Testament, the Book of Ezekiel provides what is thought to be the first written mention of a fair. Scripture states, “Tarshish was thy merchant by reason of the multitude of the kinds of riches with silver, iron, tin and lead, they traded in thy fairs.”

Clearly, fairs have evolved in many ways over the years.

According to the International Association of Fairs and Expositions, the first North American fair took place in Windsor, Nova Scotia, in 1765. About 40 years later, a New England patriot and farmer named Elkanah Watson earned the title “Father of U.S. Agricultural Fairs” by producing a small exhibit of sheep under an old elm tree in Pittsfield, Mass.

Watson believed that the fine-textured fleece of the exhibited sheep, when made into cloth, would successfully compete with the best wool imported from England. He wrote, “Many farmers, and even women, were excited by curiosity to attend this first novel and humble exhibition.”

American fairs slowly and decisively shifted away from the European festival model and into the development of agriculture and animal husbandry while offering public education, local industry promotion and entertainment. Competition soon became the cornerstone of fair programming. The 19th century closed with almost every state having at least one agricultural fair or exhibition.

Even though it is a bit clouded as to exactly how fairs got their start, officials and fairgoers alike can agree on how fairs will continue here in California—the nation’s richest agricultural state.

“As a mainstay of California’s culture, fairs will always provide a place for people to learn about the state’s agricultural heritage while coming together with friends and family to celebrate the spirit of community,” said Treacy.

For a schedule of California fairs, visit the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s Web site: Click on “Fairs” under the “Browse by Subject” tab.

County fair spotlight: ‘Greenest County Fair on Earth’

The Marin County Fair has combined the red, white and blue of an American tradition with the green of America’s future.

Last year while working toward their certification as a green business, the Marin County Fair set the goal to produce the “Greenest County Fair on Earth.” Going beyond “reduce, reuse and recycle,” their ideas are now serving as a national model of how to adopt cutting-edge environmental goals into an award-winning county fair.

“We tried to pick a theme for the fair that the people of Marin County would care about,” said fair director Jim Farley. “What we have learned about Marinites is that they are passionate about learning how to reduce their carbon footprint and make green lifestyle choices that affect our planet.”

The fair, held each July at the Marin Civic Center in San Rafael, starts with the power of the sun. The Civic Center touts the world’s first solar-powered stage. In addition, the 744 new photovoltaic panels on the exhibit hall’s roof generate 40 percent of the fair’s total annual kilowatt usage.

The Marin County Fair is also committed to water conservancy. The lawns and landscaping are irrigated with reclaimed water, and the 23 new touch-free, waterless urinals save some 920,000 gallons of fresh water annually.

Over in the barnyard, all recycled bedding materials, straw and manure go to compost. Also, the fair food—which in Marin County tends to be more nutritious than most—is served in biodegradable or compostable containers. Even entertainment and educational exhibits at the fair celebrate environmental themes.

“Families come to the fair for fun and to be together as a family,” Farley said. “Our hope is that during their visit to the fair, they will learn more about the choices they can make and take those choices home with them after the fair is over.”

Centennial Farm focuses on agricultural education

The OC Fair and Event Center sits right in the middle of urban Orange County, but that hasn’t stopped the staff and volunteers from educating local youth about the importance of agriculture in California.

In 1989, the OC Fair dedicated 3.5 acres to create a fully functional farm known as Centennial Farm. The farm is open to the public year-round and is home to fruit and vegetable gardens, livestock, a milking parlor and the Millennium Barn.

Each year, more than 80,000 children participate in the farm’s educational programs. Young people can take a guided tour where they learn about various animals and crops and participate in hands-on learning activities like planting seeds and holding baby chicks. Visitors can also take self-guided tours at their own pace with knowledgeable docents available to answer questions.

“A child’s first reaction when they step off the bus is usually them plugging their nose and complaining about the smell,” said Evy Young, the agricultural education supervisor at Centennial Farm. “But once they cradle a baby chick in their hands for the first time or get dirt under their nails while planting a radish seed, they are no longer holding their noses. They have big smiles on their faces and are usually complaining that they don’t want to get back on the bus to go home.”

Students can also participate in the “Agademics” program, which was created to provide fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders with an educational experience composed of interactive activities involving plant and animal science. This program helps young people understand and appreciate the important role agriculture plays in their everyday lives. It also supports state educational standards for English, math and science.

“The Centennial Farm has especially been important to the community of teachers and farmers as the teachers are able to take their students to a safe place with real living things,” said Young. “It provides them with wonderful teaching opportunities outside of the classroom, and farmers appreciate us focusing on locally grown produce and introducing folks to farmers markets.”

The Centennial Farm wouldn’t be the success it is without its team of more than 80 community volunteers. Volunteers do everything from farm tours to office work to caring for the crops and livestock.

“We truly couldn’t do all that we do without the help of our dedicated volunteers,” said Young.

Centennial Farm gives people of all ages a place to go where they can feel close to their food source.

“We recognize that many folks in our urban community don’t understand where their food comes from,” said Young. “If they want food, they have the convenience of going to their local grocery store and buying it. By having a working farm and growing a variety of produce and raising a variety of animals that the public can see, we hope that we can raise awareness on the challenges farmers face.”

Sharlene Garcia is a reporter for the California Farm Bureau Federation. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or

Follow us on: Facebook Twitter YouTube Pinterest Pinterest