Farmers explore ways to partner with local fairs


Issue Date: August 22, 2012
By Kate Campbell

Along with carnival rides, corn-on-the-cob and toe-tapping music, the Yolo County Fair offered farmers and ranchers a wide-ranging conversation last week about how fairs can help expand awareness and build support for local farms. Presentations focused on fuller use of fairground facilities and the role the fairs can play in expanding and promoting California agriculture.

Nearly 12 million people are expected to attend local fairs this year, about the same as last year. Behind the scenes, however, there's a push to rethink fairs and the roles they play in communities, prompted by elimination of $32 million in funds for fairs from the 2011-12 state budget.

For the first time in more than 80 years, fairs have to depend completely on self-generated revenues to continue operating. At the same time, small farmers and ranchers seek new marketing opportunities and ways to diversify their businesses.

Seven fairs around the state are holding discussions this summer with farmers and public officials, to explore ways to use fairgrounds more effectively to benefit specialty crop farmers, agritourism businesses, public education and the fairs themselves. The discussions are co-sponsored by the California Department of Food and Agriculture Division of Fairs and Expositions and the University of California Small Farm Program.

The Yolo County Fair, held last week in Woodland, 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 in Sacramento.

Marketing experts said the fairs offer a good opportunity to teach people about agriculture and interest them in exploring further by visiting local farms with agritourism programs.

UC small-farm advisor Penny Leff said fairs "have been providing enjoyment and education for years and they're used to doing it, but the facilities aren't always used full-time. With funding cuts, fairs are looking for better use of the fairgrounds and new partnerships."

About six years ago, the Yolo County Fair launched an "opening night gala." County Fair CEO Rita Moore said the event started small, but has grown to include more than 50 farms and local food vendors, and 1,200 attendees. New this year was an early reception for wholesale food purchasers—school districts, hospitals and restaurants—to introduce farmers and the variety of fresh produce grown in the county.

The Yolo County fairgrounds also has a certified commercial kitchen that can be used for developing value-added farm products and producing them on a commercial scale, and Moore said the fair is talking with businesses interested in using the facility.

Officials said fairground facilities might also be modified to serve as "food hubs," which the U.S. Department of Agriculture describes as centrally located facilities for food storage, processing, distribution and marketing. By coordinating output from many small, local farms, food hubs can help farmers connect with large, wholesale buyers.

Presenters pointed out a number of opportunities and innovations throughout California already being developed or under way by farmers and district fair operators.

For example, the Calavaras County Fair is considering addition of a slaughterhouse to serve local meat producers and markets. The Shasta District Fair makes its facilities available to house 400 seasonal farm employees. The Butte County fairgrounds is considering an educational farm and year-round use of its certified kitchens.

Also, the Tehama County Farm Bureau sponsors the "Market Place" at the Tehama County fairgrounds, a rent-free booth selling local farm products, while Placer County mandarin growers have successfully developed and maintain the popular Mountain Mandarin Festival at the Gold Country Fairgrounds. The Lambtown USA festival in Solano County has grown from a street fair to an event that fills the Dixon May Fair grounds.

"Lambtown USA has become much more of an educational event promoting the lamb and wool industry," said event organizer Dana Foss. "We have a lot of lamb and wool producers in Solano County and a lot of small businesses that rely on the wool and fiber."

Discussions about ways to maximize the role of fairground facilities is long overdue, said Glenda Humiston, USDA Rural Development state director. She said there's concern about the condition of county fairgrounds because of deferred maintenance.

"Our fairgrounds are used as staging areas during emergencies and disasters of all types," she said. "We've been working with fairgrounds around the state to help when we can, but it's a challenge because 70 percent of county fairgrounds in California are owned by the state. By law, (USDA is) not allowed to finance on those grounds."

She said CDFA and the California congressional delegation have been working to add language to the new farm bill that will allow federal agencies to work with all California fairgrounds. But, even if federal investment in fairground facilities remains prohibited, she said Rural Development has about 40 funding programs available for business and economic development, cooperatives, rural utilities and community facilities.

"Even if we can't directly finance projects on the fairgrounds, we are finding opportunities to work with other partners," Humiston said.

Information on upcoming discussions about connecting specialty crops, agritourism and fairs is available online at www.sfp.ucdavis.edu.

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.)

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