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Best Fruit Forward : Fair Has a World-Class Lemon but Attendance Is Souring


There was sour news on two fronts Friday at the Ventura County Fair: a drop in attendance and a lemon that just missed being the biggest in the world.

On the attendance front, the visitors tally for Wednesday and Thursday was nearly 8,700 lower than last year.

But fair organizers said it's too early to tell how total turnout for the event will compare to previous years.

"We've got 12 days," fair spokeswoman Teri Raley said. "I'm not worried about attendance."

Raley said the overall attendance drop in the first two days was entirely due to nearly 10,000 fewer visitors on opening day this year compared to last.

And first-day crowds in 1992 were unusually heavy because thousands of teen-agers poured into the opening-night concert by the band Color Me Badd.

Only half as many people attended this year's opening-day grandstand performance by rocker Michael McDonald. First-day fair turnout was 14,984, compared to 24,623 in 1992, Raley said.

Compared to 1991, however, when 13,509 visitors came to the fair on opening day, this year's draw was respectable, Raley said.

Attendance may come up to par with last year by the middle of next week, when two youth-oriented bands--Shai and SWV--are expected to attract big crowds.

Even so, Raley said, "we don't project big growth figures. It's still a fragile economy."

Not so fragile is the bowling-ball-sized lemon grown by Ventura resident Bill Jaeger, which has been on display at the fair's Agriculture Building.

At 8 pounds, 5 ounces, the citrus weighs more than many newborn babies. Fair officials said it is the largest lemon ever exhibited at the Ventura County Fair.

Jaeger, a 43-year-old clothing distributor whose family grew the fruit on a back-yard tree, said he had no dreams of producing the world's largest lemon.

But after hearing fair organizers rave about the fruit, he called a New York research group listed in the front of the Guinness Book of World Records.

An official at the agency, called Facts on File, told Jaeger that the lemon might be the largest ever recorded, surpassing a previous record set in England, Jaeger said.

Excited at the prospect of the world's largest lemon coming from a county known as the lemon capital, fair officials had the county agricultural commissioner put the lemon on the fair's produce scales Thursday to certify its weight.

Fair publicists set up an official fair photo of Jaeger. And Raley called newspapers to announce the record-breaker.

But a 1992 edition of the Guinness records book shows an 8-pound, 8-ounce lemon grown in Whittier in 1983. Jaeger said later that he had checked a 1993 edition of Guinness, where he found no listing of record-sized fruits.

After learning that Jaeger's lemon apparently fell three ounces short of the record, Raley adopted a positive attitude: "It's not a slouch either."

Jaeger said he still plans to submit photographs and paperwork on the lemon to Guinness.

He speculated that the freak lemon was indirectly a result of the drought. Aphids attacked the tree, further weakening it to the degree that it produced only a few fruit, including two over eight pounds.

It's possible, Jaeger said, that the tree funneled all of its nutrition into those two fruits, "then it got healthy with the rain and some fertilizer this winter and it took off."

He cut the fruit down last week, after it was apparent they weren't going to grow any more, he said.

As for the hoopla surrounding the huge citrus, Jaeger said: "That's what fairs are about."

But for food vendors and game operators, the fair is about making money. And some carnival workers said crowds are thinner than last year.

Business was so slow Friday that Robert Vogt could take time off from running a toss-the-ring game to sit back and read his horse-racing form.

But Vogt, a San Dimas resident, isn't worried: "It usually starts slow."

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