Jeff Jardine

Ag still taking Stanislaus County Fair on its annual summer ride

Members of the Rivera, Rocha and Overton families enjoy turkey legs and chicken wings at the Stanislaus County Fair in Turlock on Sunday, July 10, 2016.
Members of the Rivera, Rocha and Overton families enjoy turkey legs and chicken wings at the Stanislaus County Fair in Turlock on Sunday, July 10, 2016.

You might say the Stanislaus County Fair is off to a better-than-fair start. Crowds over the first weekend of the 10-day run, blessed by mild low-90s weather instead of the typical blast-furnace conditions of July, were “huge,” according to fair officials who are still crunching the numbers.

Not that they expected anything less. While some other fairs statewide were devastated when Gov. Jerry Brown cut their funding as he worked to close a $25 billion budget gap in 2011, Stanislaus County’s managed to weather the shortfall and maintain its popularity.

“We were hit by a $250,000 deficit,” said Adrenna Alkhas, the fair’s marketing and communications manager. “At the same time, the community really rallied around the fair.”

The fair again receives some state money – $30,000 for infrastructure and equipment – but remains responsible for generating the remainder of its budget, getting help through increased sponsorship and from the Friends of the Fair nonprofit created for that very reason. Between some belt-tightening and sticking with its original allure – agriculture – the fair remains a fixture every summer.

Yes, that discount Disneyland known as the midway and the concerts draw fairgoers, Alkhas said. While folks are there, they get an up-close look at farm life.

“We showcase ag,” she said. “Kids who have never been on a farm can milk a cow or see eggs being hatched and little chickies coming out.”

Ag still dominates fairs in different ways, according to Stephen Chambers, executive director of the Western Fairs Association, a nonprofit trade association for the fair industry.

“I’ve been to probably more fairs than anyone in history,” Chambers said. “The Stanislaus County Fair has been on a roll. Even during the economic downturn, it saw an increase in attendance. There’s nothing quite like it except maybe the Fresno Fair. You walk in through the big barns, and the ag feeling is so strong there. The primary thing is the participants. So many kids involved ... parents and grandparents there to support them. They participate. You go to the urban fairs, where there’s not that many people who have room for a cow, and they are fascinated by it. There, if its accessible, they want to see it.”

The Merced County Fair, which finished a successful five-day run in June, also is a big ag event.

“We have incredible community support here,” CEO Teresa Burrola said. The Merced fair took a $130,000 annual hit in 2011. After a few years of nothing from the state – including money to maintain the state-owned facilities – Merced, like the Stanislaus County Fair, now receives $30,000 for equipment and repairs.

The Friends of the Merced County Fair nonprofit raised $1.5 million for its new Hilmar Cheese Barn, where the 4-H and Future Farmers of America students can show their animals in a comfortable setting.

Still, Merced had to cut back on about half of its full-time staff and its fair entertainment.

“We had to do more with less,” Burrola said.

The San Joaquin County Fair in Stockton, meanwhile, had to do less with less – as in no fair at all in 2014 and 2015 before bringing it back on a smaller scale last month. The fair’s problems began in the 1980s when off-track horse wagering came into being. It meant gamblers no longer needed to go to the fair tracks to bet on the ponies. Then the state moved the racing meet dates so that they didn’t coincide with the fair itself. Now the off-track facilities are fighting to draw customers as online betting does to them what they did to the fairs and the racetracks more than three decades ago. That, along with the elimination of the state budget funding in 2011 and a reputation of being in a high-crime area contributed to the fair going dormant those two years.

“South Stockton has a horrible reputation,” CEO Kelly Olds said. “People were afraid to come down here because of the violence.”

Resurrected as a five-day event this year, the fair succeeded in no small part, Olds said, because folks now feel safer there than they did in the past. Improved security helps. He said the fairgrounds have experienced no significant incidents in recent years, and people are returning to events year-round. The ag is still a draw, not only at the county fair but also at the Stockton Asparagus Festival, which drew 80,000 people to the fairgrounds in the spring with no reported problems. The fairgrounds stay in business because the facility can handle so many different types of events, Olds said.

“Even without the fair in 2015, we had events going every day except for Christmas Day,” he said. “And this year, we’ll go all 365 days.”

Count in August’s X-Fest, the massive concert that recently left downtown Modesto.

Likewise, the Stanislaus County Fair will host more than 170 events over the course of the year. Those events account for about 40 percent of the fairgrounds’ total revenue for the year, Alkhas said. No doubt it is the fairgrounds’ meal ticket, with ag still the main course.

“One year, I’m walking out and I see a guy selling peaches just outside the gate,” Western Fairs’ Chambers said. “That’s something you don’t see at fairs unless its deep fried or on a stick. (Stanislaus’ fair does have its own fresh fruit vendor.) It’s where county fair meets food show meets farmers market.”