Debbie Arrington

Show-and-tell down on The Farm at the California State Fair

Pretty tomatoes aren’t enough to draw a crowd at the State Fair.

How to grow those tomatoes with 90 percent less water on an apartment balcony? That gets people’s attention.

From aeroponic tower gardens to grey water recycling systems, this state-of-the-art showcase tempts wannabe drought busters with technological innovations and potential savings. And these hands-on conservation lessons are presented in a lush, 3-acre celebration of California’s agricultural bounty.

That’s what’s happening down on The Farm at the California State Fair.

Now open through Sunday, July 24, the 163rd State Fair continues its generations-old tradition of mixing education with entertainment. At The Farm, new display gardens highlight water savings and programs available for consumers in a bucolic outdoor setting.

In Cal Expo’s cacophony of carnival banter and vendor pitches, The Farm stands out as an old-school oasis of calm and charm. Tucked behind the wine garden next to the Cavalcade of Horses, the State Fair’s major agricultural display is off the beaten track of midways and food courts. But it’s kept pace with its industry’s issues and innovations.

No. 1 is still drought and how to milk more production out of every drop of water.

“This is something we’ve always wanted to do,” said Julie Saare-Edmonds, a state Department of Water Resources landscape efficiency expert, outside the department’s new walk-through lawn conversion demonstration garden. “For years, we’ve encouraged people to transform their landscapes (from lawn to low water), but nobody really shows them how to do it. This shows you step by step.”

Covering 27 by 50 feet near The Farm’s entrance, the department’s demonstration garden literally walks patrons through the process of how to take out a lawn and plant something else. Among the “after” displays: a petite kitchen garden filled with herbs and veggies, a succulent garden and a pollinator garden with low-water blooming plants.

“We show three possibilities, but the choices really are endless,” Saare-Edmonds said. “There’s so much emphasis on home-grown food now, we chose to feature several edibles in a kitchen garden display. So many of our favorite edible plants are native to Mediterranean climates and low-water, too. An olive tree, for example, makes a beautiful small shade tree. Edibles can be attractive, even in the front yard.”

Fig, citrus and apple trees dot the display, tempting patrons with fruit as well as water-saving ideas. Also tempting are rebates for lawn removal, now available statewide.

As the fair opened last week, the department’s Toni Pezzetti put the finishing touches on the garden’s irrigation retrofit display. She’s been working on this garden for weeks.

“We started this garden May 18, and you can see already how much these plants have grown,” she said. “We worked with the California Conservation Corps; they did all the heavy labor. … There are a lot of things to think about before you even start. It’s doable, but don’t think you can do it over a weekend.”

The site also provided lessons for the department staff. Before its makeover, this spot had been a children’s play area with a Bermuda lawn and sandbox.

“The soil on this spot was so compacted from years of foot traffic,” Saare-Edmonds said. “The soil was dead; nothing was alive. As soon as we could, we rototilled a lot of organic compost into the soil. Amazingly, worms showed up immediately. Life re-established itself in the soil right away. That demonstrates the need to jump-start your soil before you plant, especially if it’s compacted, and not just dig planting holes.”

For folks who want to take a break from the afternoon sun, a companion display garden is set up inside the nearby air-conditioned County Building, she added. That display features several of the same low-water plants for close-up inspection plus video on lawn conversion methods.

Some low-water garden innovations require no planting holes; they don’t need soil.

Studding The Farm are several 6-foot tower gardens, which grow plants aeroponically. Pushed by pressurized air, water gurgles up a central column inside the tower and becomes mist that moisturizes roots growing inside.

“This system uses 90 percent less water and 90 percent less space (than conventional in-ground farming),” said Rich Downing, who installed the tower gardens at The Farm. “It’s great for urban farmers or people with no backyard. You can use these towers on a patio, even a balcony. And these plants will produce 30 percent more food with no soil. These towers use only 20 gallons of water, which recycles inside. And the plants grow three times faster, too.”

Inside The Farm’s greenhouse, this same method is used by the EZClone plant cloning machine, which propagates 517 rooted plants at one time from cuttings. During the fair, it’s churning out little strawberry, basil and tomato plants that will soon be take-home souvenirs.

“We can walk out there and take a cutting off just about any plant, stick it in here and get a new plant,” explained greenhouse volunteer Peter Marty. “In a matter of a couple of days, you see roots starting to grow. Once it’s rooted, you can transplant it.”

At The Farm’s outdoor kitchen, State Fair celebrity chef Keith Breedlove holds court daily, cooking some of the produce all around him. He does demonstrations each day.

“This is all about sustainability,” he said of The Farm. “People don’t really know where their food comes from or how it grows. Every day at 6, we go out and look. I show (patrons) this is what a tomato looks like when it’s ripe and this is how you pick it. We’ve got all these wonderful herbs. These tower (gardens) are amazing! There’s so much to see and talk about. At 4 p.m., I do ‘Vegan with a Vengeance.’ I love doing plant-based food – and why not? Look what I’ve got to work with!”

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

163rd California State Fair

Where: Cal Expo, 1600 Exposition Blvd., Sacramento

When: Through July 24; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 10 a.m.-10 pm. Friday-Sunday

Admission: $12; senior discount Fridays (age 62 and up) $10; youths (5-16) $8; children age 4 and under free