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Harvest Fair dumps competitive exhibits, family activities


For more than 35 years, the Sonoma County Harvest Fair has celebrated the county's fall bounty while showcasing its small-town feel, with contests for everything from pickled vegetables to pet rocks.

On Tuesday, organizers said they are giving it a makeover, dumping its competitive exhibits and family activities to sharpen the fair's focus on wine, food and perhaps even craft beer.

Most of the judged contests will be transferred to this summer's Sonoma County Fair, officials said Tuesday. The changes, which were quickly panned by some longtime Harvest Fair devotees, are designed to build upon each fair's strengths, county fair manager Tawny Tesconi said.

"We are Sonoma County's premier wine competition and tasting," she said.

Others are lamenting the changes.

"It was very disheartening," said Donna Thomas of Guerneville, who last year won third- and fourth-place Harvest Fair ribbons for two types of pickles and a hot pepper relish.

The county has plenty of beer and wine events, Thomas said, but few opportunities to celebrate the accomplishments of those who garden, bake and can fruits and vegetables.

"They have the wine tours and everything, but where do we fit in?" she asked.

Last year, 3,200 Harvest Fair entries were judged in such categories as decorated cakes, cut flowers, holiday crafts and fresh fruits and vegetables. Contestants vied for everything from best plum (won by Mickey Marshall of Sebastopol) and best amateur flower arrangement (won by Cathy Whiteman of Windsor) to best lunch box (won by Rebecca Arent-Draper of Windsor).

The Harvest Fair's competitive exhibit categories will be incorporated into the Sonoma County Fair, which last year had 15,300 entries in its judged contests.

The changes reflect the evolution of the Harvest Fair and the county surrounding it, officials said.

About 22,000 people attended last year's Harvest Fair, a decline of 10 percent from 2010. Wine tasting remains a strong draw, officials said, but fewer families now attend the fair.

"The Harvest Fair has become more of an adult event over the years," said Nick Frey, the event's president.

The fair first opened in 1975. Since then, officials said, the county has seen considerable growth in the number of rural pumpkin patches for children to visit each autumn. As well, Tesconi said, more families these days seem involved with fall sporting events.

"We're fighting for family time for people to make it to the Harvest Fair," she said.

As part of the changes, the Harvest Fair will end its farm animal exhibits and agricultural displays for youngsters.

Schoolchildren have long visited those displays on the opening Friday morning of the three-day fair. Officials said they hope the students instead will attend the county Farm Bureau's Ag Days each spring or the newer National Heirloom Exposition in September.

As part of the changes, the Harvest Fair may charge a single price for wine and beer tastings, rather than requiring patrons on some days to purchase tickets for each taste.

The event has added culinary competitions and might add beer judging if enough county breweries express interest. The Board of Directors continues to work on specifics of the new plan and will announce details in May.

This year's Harvest Fair will be held Oct. 4-6 at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa.