County fairs work to stay solvent, relevant
By Kate Campbell
Ringman Mike Shaffer peps up auction prices at the Mother Lode Fair in Sonora. The livestock event is a top attraction for fair visitors and an important source of money for future youth livestock projects and college funds.
Dressed for the show ring, 14 year-old Tuolumne County 4-H member Ellie Britton spends time with her Yorkshire-Hampshire-mix pig. This is the second year Britton has entered a project animal in the Mother Lode Fair Junior Livestock Auction.
The auction crowd was buzzing at the Mother Lode Fair in Sonora.
The livestock event last weekend featured the sale of more than 100 animals raised by local youth, most of them members of 4-H clubs in Tuolumne County. In the electric back-and-forth between bidders and ringmen, the auction generated more than $200,000 for the kids, up more than $40,000 from last year.
But more than good prices, the children and their families earned enthusiastic support from their community in an area where agriculture is an important part of the economy. Such community support will be key for county fairs throughout California.
Every year, about 12 million people attend local fairs, but few will see what's going on behind the scenes to reinvent this traditional agricultural celebration, redefine its role and ensure fairs remain relevant into the future.
Mother Lode Fair Board President Marge Kiriluk said staging a community fair is expensive, particularly since the 75-year-old operation lost more than $200,000 a year in funding from the state of California two years ago. Statewide, 80 fairs and expositions also lost funding, which means for the first time in nearly a century these community events depend completely on self-generated revenues to keep the gates open.
"We host holiday fairs, rodeos, concerts and special events to generate revenue," Kiriluk said. "We've got two full-time employees, and that's not enough to keep the facilities in the shape we'd like. In the meantime, we're doing everything we can to find new revenue sources."
She said Wi-Fi has been added to the RV park on the fairgrounds to attract more motorhome visitors. And the organization is looking for more ways to serve the community: providing discount fair entry in exchange for canned food for the needy, building alliances with community groups and local businesses.
The $32 million cut in state support for fairs and expositions in 2011 prompted plenty of creative thinking on the part of fair operators and, so far, no fairs have closed. Fairs operate on land owned by the state. The California Department of Food and Agriculture maintains oversight of operations and employees work through the state employment system.
When the funding cuts were made to individual fairs, 22 had inadequate financial reserves and were placed on a watch list. Today, that number has been cut in half, according to officials who spoke to the State Board of Food and Agriculture last week.
When asked how this was done, fair manager Patricia Conklin told the board, "At the Dixon Fair, we're embracing our 'fairness.' We've got a product that has been going on for 200 years, and consumers expect a fair to be a fair."
When Conklin, who also manages the more financially secure Sonoma-Marin Fair, took over the Dixon May Fair, it was broke, she said. First, she got rid of the big headline-talent concerts that cost a bundle to put on; then, fair officials scrutinized every line item in the fairgrounds budget.
"At the end of May 2013, we had $300,000 in reserves," she told the state board. "This year, we offered tractor pulls, bull rides and we booked an up-and-coming local band that had just signed a record deal."
Getting into the black took a lot of community support.
"The community knew if they didn't support the fair it wouldn't be there in the future. But what was really great about this year is people loved the fair," Conklin said.
It's the future of fairs state board members were most interested in reviewing. Conklin said the Dixon fair needs volunteers to step up and help with agricultural education programs.
"We also need to modernize our fairgrounds and focus on mommy marketing," she said. "We're in a prime position to embrace the traditional and branch out to future generations."
Not all fairs see such promise.
The Modoc District Fair, established in 1920, operates in a county with a population of 9,000.
"Financial stability for small fairs is fragile," Modoc fair manager Dannette DePaul told the state board. "At this point, we're looking at closing. We don't have revenues to operate another year."
DePaul and fair supporters, however, aren't giving up hope. The directors of the Del Mar Fair in San Diego County, which generates about $340 million a year, made a $40,000 grant to the Modoc fair to keep the gates open. In the meantime, Del Mar Fairground Manager Tim Fennell is working with the Modoc fair to develop alternative revenue streams: expanded camping facilities to take advantage of the crowds going to the Burning Man event in the nearby Black Rock Desert, trail and wagon rides, expanded facilities for emergency service operations.
"The problem is, it takes time and money to develop new businesses," DePaul said.
With limited resources, many fairs around the state struggle to get by with smaller staffs and budgets while forging partnerships with a wide array of community groups to expand offerings. Fair managers told the state board, however, that fewer people working on fair activities, a backlog of facility improvement projects and state restrictions on many aspects of fair operations complicate efforts to achieve financial stability.
John Alkire, manager of the Big Fresno Fair, told the state board, "There are no cookie-cutter solutions. If a fair's successful, it's a reflection of its community. It has to be relevant and add value to survive."
(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.