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Fine Fruit Despite Foul Weather at the Cloverdale Citrus Fair
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With a theme of “Peace, Love, Unity,” this year's Cloverdale Citrust Fair ran February 16th-19th, running from noon to 8 all three days. Admission ranged from $5 to $10, with kids under age 5 admitted free. The first chartered state fair in California, the fair began and continues as a celebration of the region's citrus crops.

CEO Tom Keaney presided over an event that included the Friendly Farm Petting Zoo, agricultural 4-H shows, wine tastings, cooking demonstrations, and a plethora of art and photo exhibitions. There were talent shows and an evening of varied Hispanic musical performances.

The Carnival was provided by Butler Amusements, with pre-sale wristbands priced at $35.

According to Keaney, “At this year's fair we faced some extreme weather. It got so bad on Saturday that we sent our admissions staff home and went to free admission to stabilize the guest numbers for the benefit of our vendors. It's something we have never had to do before, but the rain was monsoon-like.” He adds that “With our fair being held in February, we do expect rainy weather sometimes, and people are hardy and come out for the event anyway. But this was more rain than we'd seen in about 15 years, I'm told. We did manage to stay open nonetheless.”

Despite the deluge, attendance numbers, while not matching the record attendance levels of 2023, were “within 10% of a normal year. Concessions last year were up 45%, this year they were down 33%, but that still made us 60% to the good, so we were able to support the fair community despite the day we had to send people home.”

On the fair's opening Friday, the weather was fine, he reports. “We were ready to blow it off the doors in terms of attendance. When it was dry on our first day of operations, we were up 93% in terms of attendance over last year. It was going to be a huge year for us except for the turn in the weather.”
Keaney notes that “Our livestock and still exhibits both continued to grow this year, so that was very good. In fact, the still exhibits completely filled the hall, which was the first time that happened in about ten years. Art and food were the primary exhibits.” In the livestock barn, baby animals were a strong draw, as were the goats, which are the fair's largest exhibited animal due to the compact 6-acre size of the fairgrounds.

He reports that “The FFA came from all over the county which was the first time we've seen that in anyone's memory. We had a huge attendance from those folks. It brought tears to my eyes on Friday, good tears – Saturday, the tears were for other reasons, related to the weather,” he laughs.

Unfortunately, the rain continued through the fair's end. “Everyone did a great job, despite the conditions. We hit breaks in the weather, and Butler Amusements kept on and opened the rides when the rain stopped. They were a good partner for us.” Keaney attests that “We were afraid if we sent them home, it would put a knife in the whole fair, so we just carried on, and they did, too. They toughed it out with us and were great business partners.”

The biggest carnival rides were the most popular, including the Century Wheel, the Himalaya, the thrilling Freak Out, and the Zipper.

Keaney himself was too busy putting out rainy fires, so to speak, to enjoy any of the rides. “I didn't even get a funnel cake this year. I only got a corn dog with everything that was going on.”

Along with burgers, brews, pretzels, pizza, popcorn, mini-donuts, and those funnel cakes, a new Caribbean food vendor, Reggae Rasta Styles, joined the event. “They were really popular,” Keaney relates. “Jerk chicken, Caribbean breads made with coconut milk…despite our demographic being fairly rural, people enjoyed them. It was a chance we took with bringing in a food outside people's comfort zones, but I thought they would be phenomenal, and it bloomed.”

The fair was also home to a wide range of musical acts. “We are home base and a major sponsor for the Ballet Folklorica. Our Hispanic Fiesta of music has grown exponentially, and this year we introduced a selection of three different Hispanic musical groups. They packed our auditorium despite the rain; there were many people coming out to support the musicians.” Fortunately, the auditorium is an entirely indoor venue, and Keaney says it is a comfortable one. “It's a beautiful auditorium with red velvet drapes and seats, and a balcony. We spent $30,000 rehabbing it and put in a new acoustic package. The new sound system was a very worthwhile investment. We also put in new all-digital follow-spots. People really enjoyed being there.”

While the weather held, on Friday night, the fair also drew a large crowd to hear country-western performer Madison Hudson on the outdoor Main Stage. “Her sound was Miranda Lambert-style, and she was very popular,” Keaney says. But moving the Hispanic Fiesta indoors on Saturday was a no-brainer. “With rain and lightning storms ongoing, there was no way to put musicians connected to electricity outside. We didn't want any ‘shocking surprises,'” he says.

No surprise at all were the wide range of citrus exhibits made from citrus and other foods. Keaney describes these exhibits as “like the floats at the Rose Parade. We had free standing 360-degree exhibits that literally had hundreds of pieces of citrus with other foodstuffs as filler; we had panels that were 6 by 8 feet, all crafted of citrus. The Exchange Bank, which is local to our area, entered for the first time and received a lot of attention with their piece, but the best overall winner went to The Eastern Star, which used seeds as if they were beads to create a level of detail that was just incredible.”

Fairgoers also flocked to a major freestanding citrus exhibit created by the Lions Club. “Their exhibit was a three-quarter scale micro bus, with figures that resembled Muppets clad in in hippie attire. They fit our peace, love, and unity theme very well, and were a lot of fun.”

This was Keaney's last year as CEO at the Cloverdale Citrus Fair. He's been tapped to head the Solana County Fair starting this month, putting him in the unique position of helming two fairs in one year – but hopefully only one with a rainy deluge as well as a flood of fun.

Cloverdale Citrus Fairgrounds board President Gary Seavey described the fair as “grateful for Keaney's immense contributions. His vision and leadership have positioned the fairgrounds for continued success.”
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