For decades, the State Fair's Farm has been a showcase for the bounty of California. In a microcosm of the state's agribusiness, perfect rows of sky-high field corn towered over manicured beds of cotton and wheat.
This summer, visitors will find a very different Farm. It's now geared to their backyards including an outdoor kitchen.
"We're planting seeds for thought," said Nancy Koch, the exhibit supervisor in charge of the State Fair's Farm. "We're targeting the homeowner with urban farming. You can join the state's growing agricultural movement and eat healthy even without a lot of property."
It's part of the 160th State Fair's emphasis on food.
"Food, family, fun; that's what we're all about," said Cal Expo CEO Rick Pickering. "Fewer and fewer people are looking at 'agriculture' as a part of their daily lives; but when you think of it as 'food,' it has a lot of impact."
Fair food usually brings corn dogs to mind, Pickering added. The Farm's emphasis on using fresh produce turns that notion on its ear.
"Sacramento has its commitment to the 'farm-to-fork' effort," Pickering said, "and so does the State Fair."
As a showcase for the fair's (and Sacramento's) farm-to-fork flair, the Farm hosts daily cooking demonstrations with area chefs and food experts cooking out of the garden.
"That's why we planted sweet corn this year," Koch said. "The chefs have been really eyeing it; they can't wait for that corn to be ready."
Most of the vegetables produced by the Farm will be donated to Sacramento Emergency Foodlink and the Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services. The Farm donated more than 800 pounds last year.
During the winter, Cal Expo's staff collaborated with American River College to reimagine the Farm's 3-acre growing space. Green Acres Nursery donated hundreds of plants. Thousands of seedlings were grown by ARC students.
"We wanted to show that you could grow food with limited space even no space," Koch said. "We made a kitchen garden; you can cook out of it on a daily basis. It's loaded with herbs and vegetables.
"Everybody loves food," she added. "And you can't get it any fresher than five minutes off the plant."
A mockup of a back porch holds colorful containers full of herbs, strawberries and tasty greens. More containers sit on a balcony and staircase railings, each pot packed with pretty, edible plants.
A space the size of a typical backyard lawn holds several rainbow-hued raised beds created from recycled tires and lumber. Some beds look like they were once children's sandboxes.
"It's amazing how many plants you can pack into a small area and still have them perform well," Koch said.
Squash, melon and tomato vines pour out of their beds, heavy with fruit. Winding up trellises are light-green cucumbers and gourds, tempting passers-by to pick a sample (but don't).
Growing out of a yellow-painted tire and up a rope trellis is one crop that once was common in the Sacramento landscape, but is today a rarity.
"It's hops!" Koch said with a big smile. "Most people have never seen them. But you really can grow your own beer. Hops are very exciting for us at the Farm; it's something new and different to share."
Rapidly covering an arbor are several other vines that offer double benefits: Summer shade plus a crop. Sweet potatoes, grapes, kiwis and squash are some of those vining possibilities.
"You also can use vines to create shade for other plants," Koch noted. "The squash can shade the lettuce that can't take the summer heat."
A stand of corn, cotton and safflower still frames the Farm's display. But there are now lots of blueberry bushes and artichokes, California crops that adapt to backyard farming. The Farm is full of such mouth-watering ideas.
"California is the greatest place in the world to grow things; you can grow whatever you want," Koch said. "Diversity makes our state so great.
160th ANNUAL CALIFORNIA STATE FAIR
Where: Cal Expo, 1600 Exposition Blvd., Sacramento
When: Through July 28. Hours are 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Sunday; 11 a.m.- 10 p.m. Monday-Thursday.
Admission: $12; $10 for seniors (age 62 and up); $8 youths (ages 5-12); children age 4 and younger admitted free. Parking is $10.
Call The Bee's Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.