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The Fair's Challenge

July 28, 2002

The time warp at the Orange County Fair is evident when market steers--big, beefy creatures destined to end up on dining room tables--parade around the livestock ring. A county fair in a county that has helped to define suburban?

Why not? County fairs are creatures of government, with board members appointed by the governor and funding gleaned from the parimutuel betting tax. True, they're saddled with a mandate to educate the public about agriculture, but regulators have yet to dictate what makes a fair.

The agricultural heritage of the Orange County Fair, which ends today, is evident in the sights, sounds and smells of the livestock competition. More than 1,000 county residents brought 2,100 animals to the fairgrounds in Costa Mesa during this, the 110th annual fair. Granted, quite a few were pet mice and hamsters with names like Valentine and Spot. But there also were the sheep being tended by youthful shepherds--who, for reasons best left unexplained to the herd, wore wool garments.

The county fair has showcased youthful 4H members who practice old-fashioned hog calling. It also has invited hog riders--owners of tricked-out Harley Davidsons. Traditional artists took home blue ribbons for pieces made from clay or needlepoint; others worked with recycled materials, including bottles, jars, boxes and cans.

Those with a bent for traditional crafts competed for modest cash prizes funded by such groups as the Flying Geese Quilting Guild. Others were flying radio-controlled model airplanes.

The Buttons and Bows Square Dancers and the California All-Star Cloggers kicked up some dust. So did the Ballet Folklorico De Guadalupe, the Chinese Lion Dancers and the Ko Sue Hee Korean Dancers. The music stage included a MariachiFest, Koko Taylor & Her Blues Machine and the return of "Weird Al" Yankovic.

The mix of past and present is common in urban and suburban areas where fairs struggle to fulfill their societal role of celebrating the accomplishments of everyday people. Like other fairs, the local version must scramble for capital needed to maintain its facilities. It also must draw the next generation of fairgoers from a decidedly urban-suburban population with few ties to agriculture.

Some in the fair industry fear that the hodgepodge of rural and urban, and past and present spells doom. At least one county fair in California has gone bankrupt. And there are those who would use prime fairgrounds for other purposes. So in a region where the competition includes Disneyland, glitzy movie theater complexes and snazzy entertainment centers, the county fair must strive to remain relevant.

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