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New Jersey State Fair gets new Executive Director
Agriculture remains focus of event

6/10/2013

By Alvin Malpaya

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The world of agriculture would be a much poorer place were it not for Sussex County, New Jersey. This bucolic but otherwise unassuming county is home to Lusscroft Farm, a dairy farm that throughout the 1920s utilized the latest, cutting-edge scientific advances in agriculture. By 1931, Lusscroft Farm - rechristened as the North Jersey Dairy Branch of the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station - officially became a research project that would last for decades.

During this time, local researchers developed and cultivated the now standard practices of grassland farming, grass ensilage, milk supply production testing, artificial livestock breeding, and artificial insemination. In addition to changing the world, the success of these projects infused Sussex County, if not the Garden State as a whole, with an enduring sense of identity and pride.

It's no wonder, then, that the New Jersey State Fair - held about 10 miles south of Lusscroft - arrives every year with a unique, wholesome brand of authenticity. Clinging to its tradition, the fair connects with the Sussex community by keeping New Jersey agriculture its centerpiece attraction, the steady core amid the fair's whirling lights and loud action.

"We know who our audience is," said Barbara Wortmann, the fair's newly appointed executive director. "We also know that as agriculture shrinks in our county, and has almost disappeared in neighboring counties, we need to make a concerted effort to showcase agriculture of the past and the present."

While Wortmann joined the fair a little over a month ago, she's been a resident of Sussex County for 35 years and, as someone who frequented the fair in the past, brings the perspective of a local fairgoer to the fair's top position. She also provides a wealth of experience in non-profit organization leadership, her most recent post being executive director of the Foundation for Sussex County Community College, a six-year assignment during which time - according to the New Jersey Herald - the foundation's revenue tripled.

"It is my intent," said Wortmann, "to continue to grow the organization and make the New Jersey State Fair a household name throughout the state of New Jersey and the tri-state area."

This year, the fair will operate from August 2 to August 11 and, staying true to its history, the fair's official theme will be "the Year of the Farmer." The fair will showcase local famers during its opening ceremonies before giving way to a vast ensemble of animals on display, in shows, and in 4-H competitions.

"On any given day," Wortmann said, "we have six barns and a milking parlor full of livestock and a three ring horse show full of competitors." Since 1999, the New Jersey State Fair has been held in conjunction with the Sussex County Farm and Horse Show.

The agricultural exhibits and activities are supplemented with a wide variety of other attractions, including craft and culinary contests, pageants, live bands, and other shows and performers. While Wortmann's entertainment division is still finalizing specific plans for several new attractions, one confirmed newcomer will be K-9s in Flight, a show whose slogan is "Homeless to High Flying" because its canine personnel, all of whom perform airborne stunts with Frisbees, are either adopted or rescued.

"Every year we seek to improve on what works: family friendly exhibits that also educate," said Wortmann. "We encourage the different divisions to change a few things up to keep them fresh."

Reithoffer Shows out of Gibsonton, Florida - a mainstay on Carnival Warehouse's top carnival list - will provide the carnival this year, their 11th straight year at this fair, and are under contract through 2014. The fair will again offer its "MegaPass" which covers admission and provides a single-day ride bracelet good for an unlimited amount of rides on Reithoffer's midway.

Another popular promotion is the Sussex County Resident Deal, which offers discounted gate admission to all Sussex County residents. "It's especially popular with the senior groups because they don't have to decide ahead of time what day to come," said Wortmann. This year will be the second year that this promotion has been offered.

While there are many reasons to visit the New Jersey State Fair - demolition derbies, elephant rides, monster trucks - Wortmann and her staff of "dedicated volunteers" are working diligently to provide many more, proceeding with the clear understanding that, in this county, agriculture remains king.

"We try not to stray too far from our agricultural roots, as that is what attracts so many people," Wortmann said. "I believe it attracts people because it is a way of life rapidly disappearing. Yet many people have memories of their childhoods near farms."

With Wortmann as the New Jersey State Fair's new leader, one gets the feeling that Sussex County's rich tradition of agriculture and innovation is in the proper hands.

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