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State Fair of Virginia: Where history and agriculture meet


By Linda Van Slyke

Photo courtesy of Virginia State Fair

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It's almost impossible to think about the Commonwealth of Virginia without also thinking about its incredibly rich history. 

Whether we're talking the Algonquian, Iroquoian and Siouan tribes, Pocahontas, Chief Powhatan,  the Jamestown Settlement, Williamsburg, Patrick Henry, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Nat Turner, Booker T. Washington, Yorktown, Manassas (Bull Run), Richmond, Robert E. Lee, Petersburg, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Appomattox, Wreck of the Old 97, Norfolk Naval Station, Quantico Marine Base, The Pentagon, Project Mercury, the Dulles Corridor or Space Adventures - Virginia has been making crucial history for centuries.

However, none of this could have occurred without an equally vital agricultural component. 

Wikipedia explains that the earPhoto By Virginia State Fairly success of the Jamestown Settlement was in large part due to the agricultural skills of the Paspahegh tribe of the Powhatan Chiefdom. 

The Virginia Historical Society tells us that, by about 900 A.D., the region's Native Americans had "settled into large villages of hundreds of inhabitants."  This was made possible by their "cultivation of corn, beans, squash, and tobacco."  Tribe members then began to depend "mostly on gardening for their food."

When the Europeans first arrived, "there may have been 50,000 people in Virginia."  Centuries of successful agricultural practices had made it possible for them to become "united into complex economic, social, and political structures known as chiefdoms."

The agricultural skills imparted to the Jamestown settlers by the Paspahegh tribe were not only essential for physical survival, but also vital for economic growth.  Although the corn, beans and squash helped to keep body, mind and soul together - it was tobacco that afterwards became the key cash crop in Virginia.

Creative farming became a passion as well as a necessity. explains that George Washington "took an early interest in husbandry and agricultural improvement."  He kept detailed records and was proud to be a member of "the first American organization devoted to agricultural pursuits."

Thomas Jefferson was also an avid agriculturalist.

From a multitude of perspectives, it remains clear that Virginia's incredible history is rooted in  agriculture.  It therefore makes perfect sense for the State Fair of Virginia to currently (yet for the first time ever) be "fully owned and operated by the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation." 

The Farm Bureau entered into a partnership with Universal Fairs, the company that purchased the bankrupt event in 2012.  Together, they produced the 2012 event. The Farm Bureau then approached Universal Fairs about buying out their stake after getting a year of operations under it's belt.  The deal was completed in 2013 with the Farm Bureau as sole owner. 

Greg Hicks, Vice President of Communications, explained, "We're the only farm bureau in the United States that owns a state fair...  It's exciting and it's scary.  After having such a wonderful first year (attendance was up 40% from 2012), we're gaining confidence and feeling really good about it."

VA State FairHe added, "We have about half a dozen employees from the former administration, and that's helped a lot.  Our Farm Bureau staff has been hard at work on the fair.  Plus, there is a real community effort to help make the fair successful.  The State Fair has been around since 1854 and a lot of people are determined to keep it running."

The Virginia Farm Bureau Federation is equally determined to emphasize the agricultural component of the fair.  Hicks stated, "We want to help agriculture continue to prosper by educating the public.  In that way, decision makers can make wise decisions when it comes
to important agricultural issues."

As part of this effort, the 2013 fair offered many such learning opportunities.  Hicks explained, "We brought back the 4H and FFA shows that were absent the previous year.  We also featured many hands-on attractions such as Seed Survivor and Moo U."

According to the fair's website, Seed Survivor is "a curriculum-based interactive exhibit for children in grades 1-6."  Highlights include a "sunflower seed planting station" and "an insect video scope." 

The Washington Post reported that Moo U provides "educational tours of agricultural exhibits" and poses cliffhanger questions such as this one:  "How many cows does it take to keep the NFL stocked with footballs for an entire season?"  (Still wondering?  Okay, the answer is 3,000...)

Other 2013 agricultural offerings included a farmer's market where fairgoers could purchase local goods, live vegetable gardens (with Swiss chard and bok choy), live cash crops (such as cotton and tobacco), and lessons on harvesting Christmas trees.

The fairground from which these crops grew is considered to be somewhat sacred land by many.  What is now known as Meadow Event Park was once the home of not one, but two famous race horses:  Riva Ridge and Secretariat.   

As the saying goes, it takes a village to educate a child.  Hicks effectively involved a multitude of "villagers" in these educational endeavors with a vigorous marketing campaign.  He said that TV and radio were the two biggest thrusts of the campaign - with social media, billboards and newspapers not far behind. 

Creative promotions included the use of a bus which featured the State Fair logo.  Hicks said, "We drove it around the region two weeks prior to the fair and handed out free tickets to those waiting at the advertised bus stops."

KidwayThe approximately 229,000 fairgoers who came through the gates this year were then treated to all the delights of the Deggeller Attractions Midway.  Hicks said that the Farm Bureau is happy to continue the decades-long relationship that the State Fair of Virginia has had with this great company.  Hicks also mentioned that this year there was a separate children's component to the Midway that was renamed "Kidway" and featured "Young MacDonald's Farm."

The Washington Post reported that agriculture and forestry remain Virginia's "largest industries, producing more than $70 billion in economic activity a year."  Hicks simply concluded, "We're trying to expand upon agricultural education because it's in our DNA as a farm bureau to do so."

Seems as though agriculture is part of Virginia's DNA also...

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