Don’t call it dead. During this 162nd State Fair, the grass at Cal Expo looks noticeably browner than summers past.
General manager Rick Pickering prefers to think of the fairgrounds’ current summer tan as “gold,” like the State Fair’s official golden bears.
“Our grass is golden this year,” Pickering said. “Like everyone else, we’re doing our part during the drought.”
Besides the lawns, other signs of water savings greet visitors throughout Cal Expo during the 2015 State Fair, which continues through July 26. Water levels in ponds are kept low. Water-wise tips pop up in displays indoors and out. The racetrack’s infield lakes are filled with recycled water.
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“People wonder about those ponds (during drought), but they’re actually only knee- to waist-deep,” Pickering explained. “They’re catch basins and we use them to recycle water over and over again.”
The fair’s familiar Farm, its annual agricultural outreach to suburban patrons, has undergone a major overhaul, reducing its water use by an estimated 25 percent. The lush stands of 12-foot field corn that once anchored the Farm’s 3-acre showcase have been replaced by more urban-oriented garden displays.
Now the centerpiece is a central arbor, covered with bowers of hop vines – a popular stop for folks interested in “growing” their own beer.
Broken up into a patchwork of raised beds, the Farm illustrates the diversity of backyard food gardening. Dwarf peach trees barely waist high offer fragrant fruit. Hundreds of fuzzy kiwis hang from an overhead trellis while also offering shade. The raised beds themselves showed several interesting possibilities, from traditional wood to repurposed horse troughs to brightly painted recycled tires.
Rows of tomatoes, squash, melons and peppers will provide for local food banks. So many veggies also make you hungry.
Keith Breedlove, the fair’s first official chef, holds court in the Farm’s new outdoor “Save Mart Supermarkets California’s Kitchen.” During opening weekend, dozens of patrons crowded around to see Breedlove make healthy dishes with produce picked from the raised beds only yards away.
Best known as Sacramento’s “Culinerd,” Breedlove dispensed advice on food and life while stirring batter.
Besides all the edible plants, the Farm buzzes with inspiration for drought-weary gardeners. Sponsored by the state’s Department of Water Resources, a large water-wise demonstration garden holds several flower-filled raised beds (with plants clearly labeled) so visitors can see for themselves these un-thirsty, pretty alternatives to more familiar landscaping. (Judging by all the activity around the penstemons, this is the Farm’s favorite display for bees and butterflies, too.)
Ready to help State Fair patrons, UC Cooperative Extension master gardeners staff the Farm’s answer booth. They’re prepared to answer questions and offer drought-related advice as well as identify pests and plant problems. (Bring a photo or a sample packed in a sealed plastic bag.)
Aimed at family fun as well as education, the Farm still is home to such State Fair favorites as the insect pavilion and the working blacksmith demonstrations. Little kids will like the Farmyard Follies stage show (featuring Fiona No-No, the bad donkey). In its own version of farm to table, the Farm greenhouse demonstrates how California-grown flowers reach our homes.
During this latest drought-inspired incarnation, the Farm feels different but the same, just like the fair and our state. It reminds us again that we can save water and still do what we love.