What State Fair really should be about

Tucked behind the deep-fried booths and midway, the California State Fair Farm is a hidden respite from the grease and noise.
Tucked behind the deep-fried booths and midway, the California State Fair Farm is a hidden respite from the grease and noise. Sacramento Bee

The California State Fair is here for only 17 days, yet it attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. With a multitude of rides, games and food vendors, it’s hard to find yourself bored at the fair. And that’s the point, right?

But in an era with amusement parks galore and games that can be downloaded straight into your hands, entertainment is rarely hard to come by. So what does the State Fair have that you can’t get elsewhere?

It’s hardly tech-savvy enough to compete with other amusement destinations. The rides are the same ones you can find at any park in California, albeit slightly more terrifying in that they’re assembled in a matter of days.

The food is often deep-fried and horribly satisfying, ranging from deep-fried pastrami pizza to deep-fried Oreos, but can leave you with a stomachache.

Yet tucked behind all this constant entertainment and greasy food is a chance to learn what really makes California unique. You’ll have to walk past the flashing lights, whirling machinery and tempting food stands to find it, but it’s there and it will make you remember why the State Fair is so special.

California is the country’s largest agricultural producer and exporter. That might be hard to remember in the thick of rides and games that seem to scream everything urban.

But the fair also holds a 3.5-acre working farm teeming with agricultural activity and educational opportunities. It’s almost a different world over there.

Aimed at promoting sustainability, urban farming and local agriculture, the California State Fair Farm took me back to the field trips of my Sacramento childhood. It was green and fresh and it smelled not like grease, but like topsoil.

Instead of deep-fried, bacon-wrapped Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup stands, California State Fair Chef Keith Breedlove was offering tutorials on locally sourced cooking, using produce from the fair’s farm to teach attendees how to prepare healthier meals.

Farther inside the farm, you can find the HydroAg Greenhouse, where you can watch a plant-cloning machine work before your very eyes. You can also see the latest attempts in agriculture to maximize space and minimize water use with inventions like the Tower Garden, which grows plants three times faster while using 90 percent less water and space.

For me, a product of both urban and agricultural California, there was the distinct feeling that this is what should truly be on display at the fair – that we should be celebrating the industry that built and sustains this state.

Every state fair has deep-fried treats, and we can go to Disneyland next weekend if we want a thrill ride. But watching things grow? That’s something people don’t get to appreciate every day.