MATTOLE VALLEY, CALIFORNIA — This is the time of the year when many a campaigning candidate will conjure up the legendary small family farm. He or she will picture a nation whose rural areas are covered, from coast-to-coast, with 160-acre homesteads where Dad and the kids plow and sow the fields, harvest the crops and tend to the livestock, while Mom runs the house and keeps the books.
Alas, campaign-land and reality are not the same thing. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the incomes of small family farms do not cover expenses, and two-thirds of all farm production comes from large, very large or non-family (corporate or cooperative) farms.
That’s the “macro” picture. When you get to the “micro” level it looks better for small farms. Here in Humboldt County, on the coast 250 miles north of San Francisco, livestock ranching and dairy farming are essential parts of the local economy. Cattle and sheep used to be raised in about equal numbers, but over-protection of the mountain lion (along with growth in the coyote population) has moved most sheep ranchers into cattle-raising. Nevertheless, there is plenty of diversity in the family ranches in these parts, and it was all on display at the 106th Humboldt County Fair in Ferndale, which ended its 10-day run yesterday.
The pattern was the same this year as last and, indeed, seems timeless. Freshly-scrubbed kids of 4-H and Future Farmers of America put their well-groomed cattle, sheep, pigs, goats, chickens and rabbits on display for the judges, after lovingly tending these animals for the past year. The climax of the fair is the annual Junior Livestock Auction. At that event yesterday, local restaurants, markets and individuals bid on animals which will soon end up stocking kitchens and freezers. The cycle has repeated itself for over a century, as it has in many rural counties across the country.
However mythologized family farms have become, they have their day in the sun at America’s county fairs. Here in Ferndale, Humboldt homemakers send their preserves, quilts, canned vegetables, even homemade beer for judging at the county fair. Over at the floral pavilion, dazzling roses, fuschias and begonias from the county’s gardeners are given prizes. The art pavilion has art in every medium, some of it very good (and, yes, some of it very so-so).
The commercial building has an eclectic selection of displays: hot tubs, redwood decking, candy, even Republican and Democratic Party booths (the former had more action, but the latter party more registered voters in the county).
Since the county fair is a celebration, there is more-or-less non-stop entertainment, such as the Rhinestone Ropers, Xtreme Sport Gravity Tour (vertical motorcycle climbs), Musical Saws, Big Foot Stompers, the Red Hat Society Kazoo Band, Happy Birds Performing Parrots and a tractor-driving contest. There is a Midway, too, with a Ferris wheel and assorted thrill rides. Gourmands (if not gourmets) gorge themselves on corn dogs, tacos, cotton candy.
All of this is made possible by horse racing. Without the fair’s share of parimutuel betting, it would not survive, as gate receipts and entry fees alone cannot cover costs. There is a full card of races daily and the Ferndale fair is linked electronically with other tracks in California. There is a special building for bettors to wager on the action at two other tracks and watch it on giant TV screens.
County fairs come under the heading of what used to be called “good, clean fun.” The local daily newspaper got to the heart of the matter in an editorial: “…we like our fair because of our children. Boys and girls go to the fair and submerge themselves in carnival spirit. They play, laugh, eat, run and enjoy themselves in a setting to forever be remembered as that perfect day at the fair with the family.”
In an era of bloody video games and non-stop sex and violence on films and MTV, there is a lot to be said for county fairs and, for that matter, for family farms and ranches.