John C. (Jack) Fisher, Ohio Farm Bureau executive vice president

Ohio County Fairs: a Community Treasure

In 1823, Geauga County farmers and villagers gathered for the state’s first ever county fair, thus inaugurating a great Ohio tradition: deep-fried food on a stick.

OK, battered foodstuffs dipped in boiling fat are relatively new, but the essence of the fair experience has changed little in nearly 200 years. The fair is about animals, arts and crafts, pies, produce and sewing projects, vendors hawking kitchen gadgets and the pitchman who claims he can guess our weight. Fairs are an annual embodiment of simple, wholesome, homespun fun.

Part of the fun is they’re affordable. Howard Call of the Ohio Fair Managers Association said, “The worse the economy, the better fairs seem to do.” In the midst of the downturn, fair attendance has held up because they’re a good family entertainment value.

Big crowds help more than just the fair. An independent study of the Ohio Expo Center and State Fair documented that in a single year, visitors spent $478 million in the community, generated more than $14.6 million in tax revenues and supported 4,600 jobs. If county and independent fairs could generate similar, proportionate results, fairs and fairgrounds would be valuable community assets.

They’re also a good place to get to know your neighbors. The fair showcases your community’s small shops and big businesses, its neighborhood associations, school groups, youth organizations, clubs and churches. The fair is where you can make new contacts and new friends, a place to become better acquainted with your community, including your local family farmers.

Consider this your official invitation to get out of the grandstand and off the midway and immerse yourself in all things agrarian. Come see the cows, pigs, sheep, chickens, horses, rabbits, fruits, flowers, veggies and grains. But mostly, come meet your fellow Farm Bureau members who raise them.

You’re also invited to the Land and Living exhibit at the Ohio State Fair. Farm Bureau hosts it in the Nationwide Ag and Hort Building just east of the giant slide. While the kids watch chicks hatch, pedal a tractor, plant a flower and enjoy other free, fun things, you can tell us what’s on your mind about food and farming.

There’s one last thing to check out at the fair: Your future president, or at least your future county commissioner, or the next Steve Jobs or Stephen Hawking. The fair is about developing leaders. Young people in 4-H and FFA who commit to fair projects and volunteer for fair activities are learning responsibility, creativity and curiosity; they’re discovering the value of cooperation and the importance of respect. These are the life-skills we want in our political, business and social leaders. They’re the skills gained through the fair experience.

In case it hasn’t shown, I’m a pretty big supporter of Ohio’s fairs. They’re fun, important, and in some cases can use your help. Talk to your local fair leaders, find out their needs and then work through Farm Bureau to make a difference. Maybe you could organize volunteers to spruce up the fairgrounds or convince local business leaders to provide corporate sponsorships. Whatever your contribution, you’ll be supporting an institution as relevant today as it was two centuries ago.

So, I’ll see you at the fair, but don’t be surprised if I’ve not had the crunchy-crusted peanut butter and chocolate dipped bacon. I just won’t have any room after my corn dog, elephant ear, fair fries and lemon shake. Well, maybe after the Tilt-A-Whirl.