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Fairs consider options to deal with budget cuts

Issue Date: July 6, 2011
By Kate Campbell
Abbey Doyle of Petaluma prepares to show her Holstein cow at the Sonoma-Marin Fair, joining thousands of California youth who raise farm animals for fair competitions and sales.
Photo/Kate Campbell
For farm leaders like Dominic Grossi participating in fair activities is a life-long tradition.
Photos/Kate Campbell
As a Sonoma-Marin Fair director, Grossi judges a cheese mosaic contest, with a winning ribbon going to a local 4-Her.
Photos/Kate Campbell
In the livestock barns and show rings, children tend their animals and prepare for the judges.
Photos/Kate Campbell

Photos/Kate Campbell

Photos/Kate Campbell

With fairs going on all around the state, visitors are seeing livestock shows while enjoying corn dogs and midway rides. What the nearly 12 million people who will attend local fairs this year won't see, however, is the effort going on behind the scenes to reinvent this traditional agricultural celebration and redefine the role of fair facilities into the future.

The effort is prompted by elimination of $32 million in state general funds from the 2011-12 state budget. For the first time in 80 years, fairs will have to depend completely on self-generated revenues to continue operating.

When the budget cut was announced in May, California Secretary of Food and Agriculture Karen Ross started to develop a plan to address future operation, maintenance and oversight of the state's fair network, as well as a plan for restructuring fair governance.

The Sonoma-Marin Fair, held last week in Petaluma, is part of the network of 54 district agricultural association fairs. There also are 23 county fairs, two citrus fairs and the California Exposition and State Fair, which begins next week in Sacramento. All these fairs share a tradition that has continued for more than 140 years, with the first state agency fairs established in law before the Civil War.

"With any challenge comes opportunity," said Pat Conklin, Sonoma-Marin Fair chief executive. "We have to look at things differently. Our operation is strong, but we may have to change the way we see our role in the community."

Novato dairyman Dominic Grossi has been coming to the fair in Petaluma since he was a child, as did his father. For him, fair time is for showing and judging livestock, although as a new director of the 4th District Agricultural Association he's tackling new duties—such as judging mosaic art made from cheese and sampling macaroni and cheese to help find a blue-ribbon winner.

"It's a lot of fun, but from an agricultural perspective, the benefit of the fair for me has always been the opportunity to see other people's animals, learn about breeding and genetics and rearing techniques," Grossi said. "From the farming side of it, I learned a lot about the dairy business at the fair as I grew up. There also was the opportunity to interact with other kids who were also growing up on dairies and build friendships."

Grossi, who is Marin County Farm Bureau president and an experienced dairy judging team coach, chatted about the role fairs play in the community while keeping one eye on the dairy livestock show ring, greeting young contestants by name and offering words of encouragement.

In 2009, he noted, the Sonoma-Marin Fair took in more than $10.6 million, adding to the $2.85 billion in economic activity fairs generate statewide. The Sonoma-Marin Fair and many other fairgrounds operate year round and host a variety of events from tractor pulls, dog shows, music festivals, charter schools and day care programs at fairground facilities.

Although most of the district fairs are financially solvent and many of the larger county fairs—such as San Diego, Alameda and Orange—didn't rely much on state funds, some smaller, rural fairs struggle to make ends meet.

Grossi said the old way of doing business will have to change for fairs that had previously operated with the help of public funding. And, for the nearly two-dozen fair operations with less than a 5 percent cash reserve, the outlook is uncertain.

In the past, fairs generating the smallest amount of money received the largest amount of state support, explained Rebecca Desmond, acting director of the California Department of Food and Agriculture Fairs and Expositions Division. A former Siskiyou County Fair manager, she is coordinating a consortium of about 30 people with connections to fairs and expositions statewide. The consortium will develop recommendations for options and new business models aimed at helping the fair network remain in operation.

Desmond said it's too soon to know what those recommendations might include, particularly regarding fairgrounds real estate, but the aim is for CDFA to have a report ready for the governor by year end.

"While the budget situation definitely presents a challenge, this could be an opportunity as well," Ross said in a prepared statement. "California's fairs are an important part of our communities, and I am committed to working with the fairs to find ways they can be more entrepreneurial, including exploring options for more local control."

The Amador County Fair in Plymouth is one of the state's small fairs, but it has a reputation for innovation.

"I worked with an ad hoc committee to look at ways to make the fair and its facilities profitable," said Amador County winegrape grower Jim Spinetta. "It's one thing for the state to be in charge of fairs, but it's another to operate like an independent business.

"The problem we're facing is that the state wants to take away our funding, but they still want to be in charge of our operations," said Spinetta, who is a California Farm Bureau Federation director.

The Amador County Fair has established a nonprofit foundation and operates as a community resource, with a large group of volunteers. And, like fairgrounds throughout the state, its facilities are used for a variety of community and fundraising events.

It's also used as a staging area for fire crews battling wildfires. It's an evacuation center that can take displaced families and their animals, including large livestock, in an emergency or disaster. The grounds also serve as a helicopter landing site for transporting critically ill or injured patients to hospitals.

"The fair is only five or six days a year," Spinetta said. "It's the other 360 days that matter in terms of keeping the facilities viable. We want to see the fairs operating for the benefit of future generations and we need to figure out how to do it."

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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