I feel guilty for having failed, as of this writing, to fulfill a central responsibility of California citizenship.
I haven’t been to my county fair this year.
The Los Angeles County Fair can be an ordeal. The event is as sprawling as L.A. itself. Parking is $15. And the fair is held in September, when the Pomona fairgrounds can feel like the hottest place on earth.
But I believe I must go before the fair closes this weekend. We simply have too few opportunities in our extraordinary state to celebrate the accomplishments of ordinary people (in fields from floral arts to cheese-making).
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Fairs are among the few California institutions that, along with the university systems and the prisons, truly link our far-flung state. Our fair network pre-dates the Civil War. And a good part of the fairs’ value to our rapidly changing state is that they stay the same; their timeless role in advancing public knowledge of agriculture has never been more relevant than during this historic drought. Today, if you are a Californian, you can attend at least one local fair, and perhaps more than one. Among our 58 counties are 78 fairs operated under supervision of the state Division of Fairs and Expositions.
Perhaps most important, our fairs are one of the last vestiges of the egalitarian, democratic spirit in this terribly unequal state. Fair operators produce crowds far more representative of their home communities than the electorate is these days. Four types of entities operate fairs – counties, district agricultural associations, citrus fruit fairs, and the state agency, Cal Expo, that’s responsible for the state fair – and all are democratic institutions. Fair boards are typically volunteers appointed by the governor or counties.
In a world divided up into niches, fairs exist charmingly for the general interest, offering something for everybody. The fairs are open to all, and attendance tends to be strongest in bad economic times when cheap entertainment is most cherished.
The most recent studies pin the economic impact of our fairs at $2.5 billion, including some 30,000 jobs and more than $1 billion in annual spending by fairgoers. Their value may be highest in smaller places. Paso Robles, with 30,000 people, hosts the California Mid-State Fair that draws more than 400,000 people annually. Harder to quantify, but no less important, is all the money that nonprofits raise from their fair booths. One beer booth at the Yolo County Fair helps support four volunteer fire departments. And our fairs, taken together, are the biggest venue for presenting artwork in the state.
The California fair season is long, running from February’s Date Festival in Indio through October’s strong slate – including the Kern County Fair, San Benito County Fair, Big Fresno Fair, Desert Empire Fair in Ridgecrest, and the Southern California Fair in Perris. And fairgrounds are vital spaces even when fairs are not in session – hosting farmers’ markets, horse racing, home and garden shows, boat shows, car shows, RV shows, concerts, and other cultural events.
California fairs face financial and cultural pressures. They bring in their own revenues, but have struggled to find moneys to make big investments in their grounds and infrastructure. Fair operators speak with envy of convention centers or arenas that are funded by hotel taxes; they’d like a piece of such revenue streams. (My own idea for a new kind of sin tax – on corn dogs, a fair staple – received an Icee-cool reception when I tried it out on fair people). During the last budget crisis, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration sought to sell some fairgrounds to raise cash, but public support for fairs and legal challenges blocked his efforts.
There is worry that, in today’s safety-obsessed society, core fair attractions may come to appear too dangerous. After all, fairs are invitations to leave the safety of your home, spend hours outside in unpredictable weather, and do all kinds of strange things, often involving fried foods and large animals.
But there’s a price to be paid for democracy, and for fairs. This weekend, I intend to pay it. I’ll make my way to the L.A. County Fair and walk among the Chinese lanterns, watch the racing pigs, and taste the irony of a deep-fried Slim Fast bar. These are pleasures, yes. But they are also civic duties. See you, my fellow California citizens, at the fair.
Joe Mathews is California & innovation editor for Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Connecting California column.