Finding America at the fair

Dan Coyro/Sentinel
Lana Thomas and Karin Rettig of La Selva Beach are dwarfed by the biggest pumpkins in the county Tuesday at the County Fair.

In a world where very little is certain, the Santa Cruz County Fair can be counted on, year after 125th year, to deliver, to quote this year’s theme, “apple pies and family ties.”

There’s something reassuring about prize-winning flowers and vegetables, kids’ 4-H raised animals, tractor displays, corn dogs, carnies, racing pigs and pig kissing that keeps so many Santa Cruz County residents coming back year after year.

And while the fair changes a little every year, it really doesn’t change that much, which is a reminder about timeless verities about how our food comes to our tables, and about the countless community groups that come together each year to bring the best of something — collectibles, giant pumpkins, chickens — to display.

One of the many great things about Santa Cruz County’s Fair is the scale of the event. It only runs six days and nights — the fair closes Sunday — and the county fairgrounds are relatively compact at 110 acres. The price of admission is reasonable, and the fair won’t, shouldn’t, go broke bringing in expensive entertainment acts that would change the small-town flavor.

Sadly, many county and state fairs have become something of an endangered species. Fairs in Alameda, Napa, San Mateo and Solano counties have seen lower attendance this year.

After years of drastic drops in attendance, Santa Clara County Fair organizers turned their August event into a “youth fair.” While some fairs in urban areas are still doing OK, fairs in places like the agriculturally rich Pajaro Valley do better.

The economy might be blamed for some of the drop off in fair attendance, along with competing events such as concerts and sports events, but, really, in tough times, a family outing that costs $30 or $40 plus food is still a good value.

Speaking of values, a recent article published in the Wall Street Journal gave an elegaic tribute to the power of agricultural fairs. If you don’t understand the attraction of fairs, wrote author Tony Woodlief, “then I’m afraid you don’t understand America.” Woodlief went on to praise the joys of getting to hurl a “tattered baseball at a pyramid of milk jugs (and) run your hand along a shiny new combine … cheer at a pig race” and of eating strange fried foods and concoctions that are either “from heaven or hell, I’m not sure which.”

And a fair, he wrote, is a place and time “gentler than life … “exhausting, and hokey, and irrepressibly American.”

This post is Thursday’s Sentinel Editorial.

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