TURLOCK — The last corn dog has been eaten and prize pig shown at the Stanislaus County Fair for the season, but John Mendes already is thinking about next year.
As the fair's livestock superintendent for the past seven years, Mendes has seen the popularity of the FFA and 4-H animal programs increase steadily. This year about 2,000 animals cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and more were shown at the 10-day event. He said that is a 7 percent to 8 percent increase from the previous year.
Mendes and his staff will supervise the animals' departures today, with the last of them leaving by noon. Then it will take a few days for the staff to organize and inventory the program before closing for the season.
But it all begins again in September, with the first meeting about livestock programs for the 2014 fair.
Mendes has reason to plan ahead. He said the fair has the largest dairy show in the state, with 600 cows and heifers taking part. There were 600 swine this year, too. The animal auctions were expected to bring more than $1 million in sales.
Mendes, also an animal science instructor at Modesto Junior College, said it has been rewarding to watch the county fair's livestock programs grow as other fairs are pulling back from their agricultural components. Still, the success has made space a premium as the animal showings have been split up across the run of the fair to make room for more entrants.
"Interest just keeps going up and up," he said. "It's a good problem, but a problem. Putting the puzzle together with all these moving pieces is a challenge."
Q: How did you get your start with animals?
A: It's been part of my life forever. I grew up with this and went through the county fair experience myself. I was in the FFA in Oakdale. So it's in my blood.
Q: When do you start getting ready for the fair each year, and how long does planning take?
A: Our first meeting is in September. Then we start in January in terms of the facility. The first of May is when it becomes all hands on deck. I have a great team of seven to eight staff who make this thing happen. This is truly a team effort.
Q: What do you account for the rise in popularity of the livestock programs in the county of late?
A: Young people enjoy the experience of caring for and raising livestock. The 4-H is extremely popular with young kids. I think the growth in the numbers has to do with the growth in the population and ag programs. In the last five years, we've added four new ag programs at area schools.
Q: How has the experience changed for FFA and 4-H students at the fair over the years?
A: The biggest change is interaction. Twenty-five years ago, they were all farm kids, and the city kids would come to see them at the fair. Now, it's city kids and farm kids all together. The interaction of young kids and parents people from all over the place are now interested in agriculture.
Q: Why has our county's livestock program flourished while others are slowing down?
A: We have strong support from our community. Businesses have been tremendously supportive. In other areas, you see the opposite. Some are going the opposite direction away from agriculture. Here, it's a tradition. Families pass it on to their kids.
Q: Are you worried about outgrowing the space anytime soon?
A: We've been able to make some improvements and change some scheduling. We've had to split up the (showings of animals) in shifts; this is our third year doing that. It used to be all the participants showed during the entire fair. Even though it's crowded, we want people to find a way to be part of the experience. But we're looking into starting a capital campaign. Because, at this rate, we won't fit anymore in the next five years.