Clark County Fair strives to fete agricultural roots while attracting urban audiences

By Sue Vorenberg, Columbian features reporter

Published:

 

If you go

What: Clark County Fair.

Hours today: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Where: 17402 N.E. Delfel Road, Ridgefield.

Admission: Adults, $10; seniors 62 and older, $8; kids 7-12, $7; kids 6 and younger, free; parking, $6; C-Tran shuttle, $2 per person round trip from area Park & Ride lots; children 6 and younger ride free. $1 discount on admission with a bus fare stub.

Carnival: Opens at noon; unlimited rides today, $30.

99.5 The Wolf Grandstands: Kip Moore, 7 p.m.

Other highlights: Chips and Salsa Eating Contest, 1 p.m.; Britnee Kellogg, 5 p.m.

Pets: Not permitted, except for personal service animals or those on exhibition or in competition.

More information: www.clarkcofair.com or call 360-397-1806.

Online: Download The Columbian's mobile website for the Clark County Fair at: http://www.columbian.com/fair-mobile/

We want your fair photos

The Clark County Fair began Friday, and we want readers to submit their best 2013 fair photos to The Columbian. The photos will be published on our website, www.columbian.com, throughout the fair. And we will publish a selection of our favorite photos in the Neighbors section in the weeks after the fair. Potential subjects for fair photos include:

• Animals.

• Carnival rides and the midway.

• Monster trucks, concerts and shows.

• Blue ribbon photos.

• Your favorite fair food.

• Your kids at the fair.

• Your favorite fair photo.

Upload your photos at http://www.columbian.com/newstip or use the link in The Columbian app.

Consider what would happen if pygmy goats, alpacas and Dock Dogs came face to face with Darth Vader, Batman and Halo's Master Chief in the wilds of Ridgefield.

Would you finally hear a dark-clad figure utter the words, "The ability to shear an alpaca is insignificant next to the power of the Force?"

This odd merging of cultures isn't just a philosophical exercise, it's the strange face of this year's Clark County Fair.

The mix of old and new, technology with time-honored agricultural practices, isn't unprecedented — although it may appear that way when FairCon, the fair's mini science-fiction convention, joins the party.

It's actually an ongoing process of finding balance between the fair's classic rural focus on farms and the interests of the region's increasingly urban population.

"Fairs started out as a way for farmers in a local area to come together and showcase their crops and animals, what they were proud of," said John Morrison, manager of the Clark County Fair. "But over the last several years we've seen a decrease in agriculture in Clark County, both in terms of number of farms and animals. So my goal is to keep the fair agricultural, but also keep it relevant."

Finding the right balance is a problem facing fairs all over the country. The underlying goal of most state and county fairs is to help people understand the importance of agriculture, but if you don't provide good entertainment to go with that, people won't come, Morrison said.

"Some fairs, in my mind, have become more carnival than fair," he said. "I've been very fortunate to keep a good agricultural mix and I feel very protective of that."

But as Clark County continues to grow more urban, Morrison has had to get more creative about keeping the farm elements strong.

"Frankly, we have relied on people outside of Clark County to make sure we have good animals and all the animals we need," Morrison said. "We still have a lot from Clark County, but the numbers have

been dropping. And rather than just let them dwindle, I decided to go outside of the county to ask people if they'd like to come."

The county numbers for some animals, like pygmy goats or rabbits, are great. But when it comes to beef and dairy, things get more scarce, he said.

And to encourage those outside of Clark County to bring needed animals, the fair pays for their care while they're in town, he added.

On the other side of the equation, the fair has been looking for ways to draw new audiences in from urban areas that might not be familiar with the region's farming history.

FairCon, which has video and card game tournaments, costumed role playing and a mini film festival; and Rock U, an exhibit on the history of rock 'n' roll, are aimed at reaching out to that demographic.

"That is a completely different slice of my customer base," Morrison said. "And I hear people are really excited about it."

FairCon, which had a test run as a video game tournament a few years ago, is the brainchild of Darren and Becky Conerly. The couple, who both have gaming and farming connections, wanted to draw in some of their urban friends who weren't particularly interested in the fair, they said.

"It's been amazing the responses we've been getting from people," Darren Conerly said. "They're coming for FairCon, but while they're here they're also telling us that they want to check out the rest of the fair -- and most of them have never been before."

Darren Conerly grew up mostly in Vancouver and is a lifelong gamer, although he also has relatives in Battle Ground who introduced him to farming culture when he was young.

Becky Conerly grew up in Ridgefield on a farm with lots of acreage, she said.

"We had cows and stuff," she said. "We'd get them in the spring and raise them for meat."

Her grandmother, Pearl Relyea, was president of the fair board in 1980 and 1981, and is still the only female to have served in that position. Relyea, 96, and her husband, Cal, who passed away some years ago, started working with the fair as volunteers in 1941. The family has been involved ever since.

In a 1996 interview in The Columbian, Relyea, much like Morrison, noted the importance of keeping the fair diverse to meet the needs of the changing population.

"We started out with a pile of brush, and you can see what it is now," she said in that story. "I've always said, when the fair stops growing, that's the end of it."

Her granddaughter has been head of the pygmy goat area for several years. But her farming background didn't keep her from also becoming a gamer, Becky Conerly, 39, said.

"When my brother and I were young we were really into video games, we had one of the first Atari systems," she said. "And my husband and I still have all the gaming systems."

In some ways, the 4-H and farm kids have an upper hand on the urban gamer kids, she added.

Urban kids often don't know all that much about farming, but kids on small farms often have gaming systems and are familiar with gaming and science-fiction culture, she said.

"A lot of our friends are like, 'Oh, the fair? That's just farming. We don't do that.' So we thought we'd create a mini Comic-Con type of event at the fair to encourage them to come," Becky Conerly said. "I think it's important for them to see where their food comes from. Agriculture is very important in our lives."

Some of the folks coming in for the Halo 4, Soul Caliber, Guitar Hero and other gaming tournaments have said they want to try things like milking a cow, which is a brand new experience for them.

"I'm interested in hearing what they make of the rest of the fair," Darren Conerly said. "It's all really new for them."

The FairCon film festival is also an interesting mesh of worlds. Morrison, who was a judge for the 48-hour film contest that produced the six short festival films, noticed most of the teams didn't have an agricultural background.

"We brought them in and gave them instructions at the start of the 48 hours, so they didn't know what was coming," Morrison said. "We decided the films all had to have an alpaca included. They also had to have an apple to honor the 100th anniversary of the (state) Department of Agriculture."

Alpacas are the featured animal in the fair's agricultural education exhibit, he added.

"Some of the kids cold called an alpaca farm and asked if they could film there, which they were allowed to do," Morrison said. "Some of them as I was watching the results I was thinking 'How the heck are they going to get an alpaca in this?' But they managed."

The films will be shown on a loop at FairCon, he added.

The fair has reasonably consistent attendance of about 250,000 people over its 10-day run, although it drops some if it's overly hot or rainy, Morrison said. Last year's heat spell dropped attendance to 219,000, he said.

Reaching out to urban audiences with new exhibits, carnival rides and other entertainment keeps the fair viable, but the hope is the newcomers will also learn something in the process, Morrison said.

"That's why we keep things here like the milking parlor, so the public can see where food actually comes from," Morrison said. "Milk doesn't come from a display door at Fred Meyer. It comes from a farm and a cow. Agriculture is tremendously important, and if we can teach people that while they're having fun, that's great."