The Marin County Fair
SHOWCASING THE COUNTY’S AGRICULTURAL BEST ALONGSIDE FUNNEL CAKES, TILT-A-WHIRLS AND THE RING TOSS
When my children were young it was not unusual for them to request that I make summer vacation plans around the Marin County Fair schedule. And I got it! I remember so well that feeling of anticipation, the building excitement about riding brightly lit rides on warm summer evenings, oohing and aahing over the bursting fireworks, and trying to win a huge pink stuffed elephant at the ring toss.
But the greatest draw for all of us was always the barnyard animals. As a young girl, I spent hours exploring the farm exhibits at the fair, studying each creature, trying to imagine what it would be like to raise this animal myself. And when my children were young, I watched them do the same in the “Fur and Feathers” tent and the Barnyard stalls at the Marin County Fair. We could never stay at the animal exhibits long enough, and they loved asking questions of the proud young 4-H exhibitors. I’ll never forget the day a bow-tied young man, maybe 12 years old, told my small children that his beautiful award-winning pig was named Bacon because … “Well, you know why,” he said as my kids blinked up at him with wide eyes. They most definitely did not know why.
“Many fair-goers are urbanites,” says Charles Barboni, the mastermind behind the orchestration of over 1,000 categories, 100 judges and 14,000 entries in the art, agriculture and cooking sections at the Marin County Fair. The goal, says Barboni, is to introduce visitors up close and experientially to the bounty of Marin and the agricultural legacy that is such an essential part of our county’s character. For many people, the fair is their primary exposure to agriculture and the people and animals that comprise our local foodshed, so while the goal is always entertainment and joy, there is a critical educational role to be fulfilled by the agricultural elements of the summer fair.
This summer, the Marin County Fair is themed “Let the Sun Shine In,” in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love. The events and competitions that make up the five-day extravaganza kick off on June 30, so, as you can imagine, on the chilly winter day of our meeting Barboni, who was recently named Fair Manager, was already hard at work preparing and organizing. In fact, Barboni, who grew up on his family’s Marin County dairy ranch in Hicks Valley (his brother Bill still runs the century-old family ranch), has not stopped year-round preparation and organization of exhibits for the past 18 years.
For Barboni, the county fair has been a way of life. He was a 4-H-er growing up, showing dairy cattle. He went to UC Davis for college and studied agriculture, and after graduating became a director of the Sonoma-Marin Fair. As a Farm Bureau representative, he also volunteered at the Marin County Fair for 15 years before being hired fulltime 18 years ago. When I asked about this year’s exhibits, he seemed as excited as if this were his first year.
“Last January we actually won the award for agricultural programming for the whole Western United States,” he gushes. “In the 1970s, as a volunteer with the Farm Bureau, I introduced a small petting zoo with just 12 animals. It was very successful, so we added more livestock and exhibits and it has grown to what it is now.”
What it is now is, for lack of a better word, amazing. You’ve always wanted to milk a goat? You can do that at the fair. Or a cow, for that matter. Curious about the farrier’s art of horse-shoeing or how to pack a llama for a pack trip? There’s a demonstration for you. Sheepshearing, horse-vaulting, guinea pig and exotic poultry showmanship, draft-horse-hitching, bee-keeping and the tree-pruning techniques of master gardeners … Naming these few gives a sense of the scope of what is offered throughout the day at the fair. There is something nearly ever hour.
One of the biggest draws over the years has been the pig races. Many unknowing urbanites and suburbanites stereotype pigs as oversized wallowers, but an afternoon witnessing the young porcine speedsters willing themselves around the mini-track will prove the error of that assumption.
One of the fair features that Barboni lauds most is the culinary Blue Ribbon Stage, and he points to the leadership of Ramekins Cooking School chef and instructor Lisa Lavagetto, who coordinates culinary contests as well as demonstrations by a “who’s who” parade of local chefs and producers. Fair visitors can “Meet the Cheesemakers,” West Marin terroir heroes such as Jennifer Bice of Redwood Hill Farm dairy and the Giacomini sisters of Pt. Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company.
“People love to hear from these local producers directly, to hear their amazing stories, their family history, how they decided to make the cheese they make. Their presentations are unbelievably popular,” says Lavagetto. The Say Cheese! competition requires that entrants use only cheese produced locally in their recipes, and visitors are able to sample the entries after judging is complete.
“We are just so lucky—truly blessed—to have these purveyors right here in Marin and Sonoma,” she adds.
An impressive lineup of culinary contests allows bakers and chefs of all ages and stages to bring their most beloved recipes to a larger audience. Another of Lavagetto’s favorite contests is called Bread! The Staff of Life. “This is just normal people from Marin making bread in their homes and you would not believe how good the bread entries are,” raves Lavagetto. “Honestly, one of the olive breads I tasted last year is the best bread I have ever eaten!”
In several categories, special awards are offered for “Best Use of Products Made in Sonoma and Marin.” For instance, the Clover Country Cuisine contests require the use of two or more Clover Sonoma products. In the California Cheesecake contest, similar to the Say Cheese! contest, the top prize will go to a baker who uses only local cheese. Prizes are sponsored by the organizations like the Marin Agricultural Land Trust and the North Bay Dairy Women. Other culinary categories include everything from “Lovely Loaf Cakes” (sweet or savory) to “One Potato, Two Potato” (the name speaks for itself ) to “Healthy Choices” (Kaiser Permanente’s Healthy Marin Director Pat Kendall is on the judging panel). “This Little Piggy” is a pork cook-off sponsored by the California Pork Producers Association. Homemade bacon, anyone? This dovetails well with the fair’s Market Swine Competition, one of the most popular junior breeding and showmanship competitions (see sidebar).
“We’ve worked to make agriculture a central part of the fair and provide a sense of the legacy of agriculture in our county,” says Barboni. Historical photography and educational signage features Marin agriculture as it was before the 1960s, when the growth in subdivisions meant a dramatic reduction in the number of Marin County dairies and farms. Other signs detail the current issues facing local agriculture.
Barboni’s personal story, as a former dairyman whose family has been farming for four generations, means that his role as a fair supervisor is enhanced and informed by his position as a representative of an often-overlooked but seminal segment of our county’s population and identity. He hopes the agricultural exhibits will remind fair visitors that we live alongside farmers and ranchers in this county, and that they are among the most valuable parts of our community, contributing on the most fundamental level to the health of our area.
“It is crucial to continue to educate new generations about one of Marin’s largest industries,” he says. He adds that one of the most satisfying parts of the job is seeing that new generation—from a 4-H-er showing livestock to a middle-schooler entering his first pie contest—gain recognition for their efforts, all the while doing what so many generations have done before them at the county fair: having a lot of fun.