Dear California: Keep Your Fairgrounds! | Civil Eats

Dear California: Keep Your Fairgrounds!

California’s Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has released a list of state properties that might be for sale in this time of unprecendented budget crisis. On that list are a couple of fairgrounds, including the Ventura County Fairgrounds in Southern California.

The Ventura County Fairgrounds is actually California’s 31st Agricultural District, and operates under the oversight of the California Department of Food and Agriculture. You can visit that website to learn more about our Fairs and Expositions; they represent a great underutilized resource in California.

Per a report produced under the leadership of previous Governor Gray Davis (remember him?):

The network of California fairs is an economic, social and cultural bonanza that enriches the lives of Californians from every background and walk of life. California’s fair network dates back to before the Civil War as a way to advance public knowledge of agriculture and provide a community gathering place. That tradition continues to this day, but with modern innovations that bring home the importance and reality of agriculture to an urban population that may have little contact with farms, ranches and agribusinesses.

In California, the mission of fairs has grown to include commercial ventures that hold little relation to agriculture (such as car races). But I know that the Ventura County Fair is one of the last great fairs in California, one that truly evokes the spirit of agriculture, past and present, and helps people to understand more about those who work to feed us.

California legislates by ballot box. Competing initiatives and propositions from different election cycles make it difficult to develop and provide a coherent and sustainable roadmap for the state. The passage of one ballot initiative, for example, may rule out another. Each ballot is a confusing tangle of competing initiatives, nearly all driven by special interests.

California’s initiative law was passed in 1911, during the Progressive Era. Ballot initiatives provided an instrument that enabled “the people” to check excesses during a period when there was little regulation of industry or other aspects of American life (call it the Gilded Age). Peter Schrag, a columnist with the Sacramento Bee, has written about this in “Paradise Lost.”

(Schrag has also written a book more recently about California as America’s “high stakes” experiment. He generates interesting and thought-provoking work that will challenge your thinking in any number of ways. If you hold the view that the beginning of the budget crisis in California dates back to Prop 13 in 1978, Schrag’s work may resonate with you. Even if you don’t believe that, you’ll find his viewpoint worth considering, and he’s a lively writer.)

We are in a world of budget trouble in California. I have been sharing this with the many out-of-staters that I speak to on a daily basis. I don’t know that my out-of-state friends fully comprehend the size of the state, and the implications for the nation if the experiment here fails. Per 2008 census estimates, 36,756,666 Americans live here…that’s nearly 1 in 12. We have more than six million students K-12 enrolled in our public school system; that’s greater than the entire population of some other states. We’re a MEGA state by nearly every index, including the challenge index.

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We’re also a mega agricultural producer. In 2007, California was the number one state in cash farm receipts. The state produces about half of U.S.-grown fruits, nuts and vegetables. Many crops are produced solely in California. Bring this down to a smaller, local level, and California is still a leader: we are also home to some of the most productive agricultural counties in the U.S. Per 2002 Ag Census figures, 9 of the nation’s top 10, and 12 of the top 20 ag producing counties are in California. Ventura County is one of them.

So what does this have to do with the sale of state property? In California, agriculture is not just something that’s part of our past, as it is in some other places. It’s vital to California’s future, and the state’s current economic health. And the kinds of foods we produce are vital to human health, which ought to be a national priority. This is important and heady stuff, the stuff of a nation’s food security, a nation’s future.

How do we preserve this and assure agriculture’s vitality for future generations? We continue to educate the public about the importance of agriculture, no matter how deep the budget cuts go. If anything, we do more. Agricultural education is our seedbank; it is where we should be sowing more now, to reap future benefits. Not just in California, but nationally.

How do we do this? Well, we could lose No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and replace it with education about agriculture. When we don’t educate youth about the food system and healthy lifestyle, we leave all children behind. Substitute NCLB with a national curriculum that incorporates food systems education, environmental awareness, and human health. Teach children about agriculture, where their food comes from, about the importance of healthy soil in producing healthy food and healthy communities. That’s a good start (and my next public policy agenda item).

But we also need to keep the Fair and Exposition system intact in the Great State of California. If anything, we should commit to pumping into that system more money, resources and a real mandate to improve and increase the focus on agricultural education, making it once again the primary mission of these public venues. We must develop a coherent educational and outreach plan that involves all stakeholders, including agricultural interests (who, in Ventura County, do a great job of educating the public about their work at the Fair). But we don’t sell taxpayer treasures like county fairgrounds, which sometimes provide the only link between consumers and the agriculture that feeds them.

The threat to sell state properties such as fairgrounds may be a publicity stunt on the part of the Governor. He is clearly trying to let citizens know that we are in a dire situation, and that whether these ballot measures pass or not in the upcoming special election, that there is going to be a lot of pain to go around. He is daring us to consider what might happen if we fail to approve these measures. Double dog dare the voters.

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But talk about selling fairgrounds? If we value the future of agriculture in California, this is not a dare any of us should be willing to take.

Rose Hayden-Smith serves as strategic initiative leader in Sustainable Food Systems for the University of California’s Agriculture and Natural Resources division.  She also serves as a 4-H youth, family and community development advisor for UC’s Cooperative Extension office in Ventura County. Her work focuses on providing gardening and food-systems education to youth, educators and community audiences. Hayden-Smith uses historical examples to influence current public policies relating to food systems and nutrition. She holds Master’s degrees in education and U.S. history, and a Ph.D. in U.S. history and public historical studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara. A practicing U.S. historian, she is a nationally recognized expert on Victory Gardens, wartime food policies, and school garden programs. A Kellogg Foundation/Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy Food and Society Policy Fellow (FASP), she is the creator of UC’s Victory Grower website and blog. Read more >

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  1. All the fairs I have attended have had little to nothing to do with agriculture, other than a little petting zoo of domesticated creatures. Bring the Ag back to fairs and get rid of the superficial junk that most of them peddle (pathetic bands, cheesy rides, horrid food, trinket peddlers, etc.) and then I think the tax payer can say they are something worth supporting. Our local Grange does a better job than the County Fair in their little Harvest Festival celebrating and teaching about local agriculture.

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