By Joe Mathews
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. In this extraordinary state, we simply have too few opportunities to celebrate the accomplishments of ordinary people, in fields including floral arts and cheese-making.
And that’s not all fairs do. Our fairs, like universities and prisons, are among the few institutions that link this big state. And by staying mostly the same year to year, they provide a healthy hedge against rapid change; their timeless role in advancing public knowledge of agriculture has never been more relevant than during this historic drought.
Perhaps most important, the 78 fairs in our 58 counties are among the last vestiges of democracy in this increasingly unequal state. They draw crowds far more representative of our 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 handles the state fair – and all are democratic institutions. Fair boards are typically volunteers appointed by the governor or counties.
Attendance at California fairs is 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 is all the money that nonprofits raise at fairs. One beer booth at the Yolo County Fair helps support four volunteer fire departments.
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 and the Southern California Fair in Perris. And fairgrounds are vital spaces even when fairs are not in session, hosting farmers’ markets, horse racing, boat shows, car shows, RV shows and concerts.
California fairs face financial and cultural pressures. They bring in their own revenues, but have struggled to find money to invest 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.)
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 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 head to the L.A. County Fair and walk among the Chinese lanterns, watch pigs race, 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 citizens, at the fair.
Joe Mathews is California & innovation editor for Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Connecting California column.