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Stanislaus County Fair a place to learn about agriculture

Hugo the One-Man Band, one of the many attractions at the Stanislaus County Fair, can thank a farmer for this gig.

This and other county fairs owe their existence to the agriculture that goes on around them all year.

They began long ago as a showcase for crops, livestock and food preservation. The fairs have continued to serve this purpose even as they have added carnival rides, concerts and other attractions with little direct link to farming.

This is true even as Stanislaus and nearby counties have grown, mainly in their cities.

"We're fortunate in Stanislaus County that we still have a real rural element and a large farming population that contributes greatly to our economy," said Tony Leo, the fair's chief executive officer.

The city slickers can learn about what the country folk are doing by stopping by certain parts of the fair, which runs through Aug. 3.

Here's a sampling (and it leaves plenty of time to catch Hugo, who plays four hours each night):

The big picture: More than 1,700 sheep, swine, steers and other livestock will fill the west side of the fairgrounds by Sunday.

Curious about what it takes to raise them? Ask anyone in a white 4-H uniform or blue FFA jacket. Then bid for one at the auctions, so these young people can cover their costs.

The little picture: You can see a real baby bird hatch in an incubator at the 4-H Farmyard Experience in the livestock area. Live chickens, quail and finches will emerge throughout the fair's run, perhaps to be greeted by the sounds of The Temptations or Mariachi Vargas on the adjacent concert stage.

"We have to plan the eggs so they will hatch strategically during the fair," said Karlene Bert, coordinator of the Farmyard Experience. "Sometimes they'll hatch before the fair."

It's nuts: One of the main themes for the 2008 fair is a salute to the county's almond and walnut producers. Displays on growing, processing and marketing are in the Homemade and Homegrown Exhibits Building. Each day, a different processor will have nut-related gifts for the first 1,000 people who stop by.

"When we're nut of the day, we're going to be emphasizing not just agriculture but organic agriculture," said Wendy Larson, general manager of Big Tree Organic Farms, a Turlock almond producer that will take part Friday.

Nuts and bolts: The ag mechanics exhibits show what FFA members have learned about welding, pipe fitting and other skills.

OK, so gazing upon a well-crafted trailer hitch might not be as thrilling as riding the Kamikaze on the midway, but it's just this kind of skill that makes farming around here possible.

Milk it: Fairgoers can see dairy cows provide their product at the milking parlor in the livestock area. Then they can chug down a shake at the 4-H Milk Bar, partaking in the county's top-grossing farm product.

Can it: Decades ago, making jam, pickle relish and other preserved foods was a way of life for farm people. Today, it's a hobby, on display in the Homemade and Homegrown Exhibits Building.

Dig it: The fair's other theme is Jurassic Journey, including displays about some of the dinosaurs unearthed by scientists. What's that have to do with farming? Not much, it seems.

But think again. It's believed that today's birds are descended from dinosaurs, and that would include the poultry at the fair.

Earlier this week, poultry barn assistant Sherry Parker helped hang a replica of a rooster from the ceiling of an exhibit tent. A rooster with tiger stripes.

"He's meant to look kind of saber-tooth-tigerish," she said.

So there you have it -- fearsome roosters, awesome milkshakes, wholesome fun. All (or much of it) in celebration of agriculture.

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at jholland@modbee.com or 578-2385.

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