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COURSEY: As the Harvest Fair goes, so goes Sonoma County

News that the Sonoma County Harvest Fair will scrap its amateur arts and crafts competitions and other family-friendly events in favor of a focus on wine and food is a reflection of the direction of our community as a whole.

And while it may be a realistic reflection, it's not necessarily a pretty one.

Sonoma County is getting older and moving further away from its past as a diverse agricultural community. So, too, is the Harvest Fair.

Established in 1975, the fall fair began as a celebration of all of the county's bounty, and it has sought to maintain that through its 38-year history. Sure, wine and food have become a big tourist draw at the fairgrounds, but the Harvest Fair also has maintained its down-home feel with animal exhibits, sheep-dog trials, pumpkin-tossing contests, the grape stomp and a showcase where ordinary people could display their extraordinary talents, from painting and photography to cake decorating, flower arranging and all varieties of fruits and vegetables.

Thousands of school children were welcomed to the fairgrounds each year on Ag Day, the traditional opening of the three-day fair weekend. For many of them, it was their first up-close encounter with a cow or a goat or a rabbit — or a farmer.

But as Sonoma County as a whole has grown older, more citified, more expensive and more focused on wine and food than cows and goats, so has the Harvest Fair. A few years ago, Ag Day was cancelled in an attempt to cut costs. It was reinstated, but fewer families were willing to pay the admission price of $10 for adults and $5 for kids. Youth sports and a cornucopia of other harvest-season family activities were named as competitors by fair Manager Tawny Tesconi.

Attendance in general is down sharply, but the fair's wine-related events remain a strong draw, staff writer Robert Digitale wrote in his story on today's Page 1. And so the fair has decided to narrow its focus.

The arts and crafts competitions and exhibitions will be folded into the annual Sonoma County Fair, which last year had some 15,000 entries compared to the Harvest Fair's 3,200. Critics, naturally, lament the loss of the smaller, cozier fall festival at the fairgrounds, and the fair's move toward the "monoculture" of grapes that seems to follow the trend across the county.

But while it's true that grapes and wine have become the driving force in agriculture (and, some would say, culture as a whole) in Sonoma County, their cachet and allure is actually helping to spur interest in the parallel trend toward healthy and locally grown food. It's hard to imagine us talking about "artisanal" vegetables and "locavore" eating habits without fine wines having paved the way.

None of which is much fun for kids, or an inexpensive way to spend a Saturday afternoon.


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