Farm children bringing their own animals into the L.A. County Fair to be judged and then sold at auction, sometimes tearfully, was once a mainstay, but times and priorities changed.
Fewer children participated, the fair withdrew its support, bidders were in short supply and after 2007 the program ended.
In 2022, for the fair’s centennial, I’m happy to report that livestock competitions are back. As before, children and adults from all over California are bringing in animals. The fair opened May 5 and closes May 30.
“Since it’s our centennial, we thought it was important to reconnect with agriculture,” fair spokeswoman Renee Hernandez tells me.
Reconnecting with agriculture isn’t simple. For one thing, where is it? Most of the animals we encounter in our daily lives are fellow humans demanding to speak to the manager.
And after 15 years without, the fair has to rebuild a livestock program from scratch. We’ll see if the will is there to stick with it and if the response is there to justify the effort.
The fair hasn’t been without agriculture. A year-round garden with exotic fruits and vegetables is cultivated. A livestock superintendent from Oklahoma brought in hundreds of animals to gawk at, timed to produce dozens of live births every fair.
Now a petting zoo with goats, sheep and more is run by Cal Poly Pomona. And livestock competitions are back, in barns that for the past 15 years held static displays like olive oil.
“We’re trying to bring back all aspects of the 4-H and FFA to the fair,” says Don DeLano, who manages the fairgrounds’ farm and has been a full-time employee since 1992. “It’s been challenging putting back together what was taken apart.”
There’s even less local agriculture to draw from than before, with nearly all local dairies having closed or left.
“We used to get 400 cattle. Our last show, we had nine show up. You can’t run a show like that,” DeLano says.
While competitions are back, auctions aren’t. Perhaps in two or three years, DeLano says. One step at a time.
But the return of livestock is off to a decent start. The first weekend saw pygmy goat competitions. This weekend will have more action.
“The big show is the sheep show this weekend,” says Sasha Turnbull, the competitions coordinator, checking the entries for me on her computer. “It looks like 215 sheep, 66 angora goats and 13 cattle.”
Shows will take place starting at noon Saturday for sheep and noon Sunday for cattle. The public can watch the judging, which involves such factors as performance and quality.
Participation by 4-H and FFA this weekend is largely around cattle, but the third weekend will see Boer goats from various youth groups, as well as rabbits and llamas. The fourth and last weekend before the fair closes will have dairy goats and poultry.
When I visit on Wednesday afternoon, only one trailer of sheep has arrived.
Terry Mendenhall traveled from Loma Rica, north of Sacramento, where she has a 32-acre ranch. Mendenhall and three others pooled their resources to bring in 55 sheep.
When I meet her in the barn, the 73-year-old Mendenhall is in a pen, slipping a harness onto an ornery sheep of nearly 150 pounds that she calls “a problem child” before walking it to a different pen.
Sheep are going “baaa, baaa, baaa” all around me. It’s a sound we can all identify but that most of us rarely hear in real life.
Mendenhall walks me down her row of pens.
“These big tall girls are Rambouillet,” she says, moving on to black Romneys, black-faced Shropshires and Merinos in white, gray, brown and black. She holds a white Merino sheep still and uses her fingers to separate some wool down to the skin.
I stroke the wool coat, about two inches thick. It’s soft. She sells the wool to weavers and spinners, 8 or 10 pounds per sheep, and getting up to $250 per pound.
Why travel 450 miles to Pomona? There may be good contacts to be made. It’s good for farming in general. And then there are the competitions.
“There are 13 classes in a division. First place is $50. If I’m first in all 13 classes,” Mendenhall reasons, “that’ll pay my fuel bill to come here.”
She participated at the L.A. County Fair from the early 1990s until open livestock ceased. She’s pleased that livestock is welcome again and likes the fair’s move to May.
“It’s nice, especially since it’s cooler. September was bad,” Mendenhall says. “I like talking to the kids: ‘Food comes from farms, not the grocery store.’ We try to get people to support farming.”
Cecilia Parsons brought 14 Shetland sheep, one of the smallest breeds, from Ducor, which is north of Bakersfield.
“They’re a hoot, but they need to pay for themselves. This is one way to do it. If I take them to three or four fairs over the summer,” Parsons explains, “they’ll pay for their feed.”
She’s another farmer who was a regular at the fair until 15 years ago.
“There’s a sheep-people grapevine,” Parsons jokes. “A friend who lives down here said she heard they were bringing back livestock. We were all very skeptical. We didn’t think it would happen.”
But it did, and here they are.
Parsons, a former journalist, kept tabs on the fair in the intervening years. She read about how the fair had become more of a commercial enterprise — “operating like a swap meet” is how she puts it — under previous management.
She’s glad, obviously, to see a renewed focus on animals.
“We were always told livestock is why people come to the fair. People need to know where their lamb chops come from,” Parsons says. “If this is a county fair, it’s supposed to be a county fair.”
The message to the previous, overly manicured iteration of the fair: Baaa.
As a reminder, this weekend I’ll be selling and signing my new book, “100 Years of the Los Angeles County Fair, 25 Years of Stories,” from noon to 2 p.m. Saturday at the fair on the patio outside the Millard Sheets Art Center, and doing the same after a reading, talk and Q&A from 2 to 3:30 p.m. Sunday at Cafe con Libros, 280 W. Second St. in Pomona.
David Allen writes Friday, Sunday and Wednesday and sells books as he can. Email email@example.com, phone 909-483-9339, like davidallencolumnist on Facebook and follow @davidallen909 on Twitter.
Source: Orange County Register