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Sonoma County Fair Moves from Piglets to Watermelons While Returning to their Roots
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Celebrating its 83rd year, the Sonoma County Fair eliminated its long-running pig scramble this year on Farmers Day. Kids ages 5-10 annually wrangle 40 to 60 pound piglets, but this year they carried watermelons slicked with vegetable oil as a more humane alternative in a timed race. It was an effort to nod to the times, despite a theme that focused on tradition, both agricultural and otherwise.

The fair ran August 1 through 11th with a theme of “Back to Our Roots In Cowboy Boots.” Among the events offered were Wine Country Horse Racing which was free with fair admission. Free concerts were presented nightly at the Community Stage, and Butler Amusements ran the carnival, which featured 38 rides in all.

There were several rides featured this year: the Giant Wheel, Footloose, Tilt-A-Wheel and the Frog Hopper. The Giant Wheel was a major draw. Also new and popular were Crazy Train and Dizzy Dragon. 

According to fair board president Rob Muelrath, the fair’s theme was all about  “bringing our community back to our roots with a focus on our western and agricultural heritage.” 

The 2019 Hall of Flowers continued a community-loved event. The theme was a “Country Garden of Songs.” Each garden highlighted a country song featuring a different flower, from “San Antonio Rose” to “The Orange Blossom Special.” An Old West-style saloon, called the Honky-Tonk bar, offered a beverage break in keeping with the heritage theme. Other choices for quaffing a cold one were available at the Sierra Nevada Speakeasy and Whiskey Bar. There were activities that included panning for gold and mechanical bull rides as well, which also fit the western theme.

Going back to the fair’s roots also included a strong nod to agriculture. As always, there were plenty of livestock and farming exhibits, including a big hit with the kids, the Great American Petting Zoo. August 4thwas Farmers Day, and as such, included rodeo events and livestock events. On the 3rd, a Junior Livestock Auction was held. The animal-centric events were all popular aspects of the fair, according to fair staff. The cattle drive held on the fair’s first Sunday was also popular.

The fair’s Brew Fest was among the most popular attractions overall at the fair this year; concerts were also well attended. Most were free. Popular acts included the Yacht Rock Revue, Lonestar, classic rock act The Grass Roots, and David Victor of Boston. The Average White Band also rocked out. 

Food favorites at the fair skewed toward the classics: funnel cakes, kettle corn, and fruit in a hollowed pineapple were popular. Returning favorites included Willie Bird’s BBQ, and Ibleto’s Spaghetti Palace. 

Despite solid interest in the music, animal events, and the Brew Fest, paid attendance dipped to 125,802 -- 75,000 fewer than attended 6 years ago, when the fair was at its peak. This year’s attendance was the lowest in the modern history of the fair.

There were several reasons for the six-year decline, Muelrath says. In past years, regional fires were a major factor; this year, sadly, the violence at the Gilroy Garlic Festival, also located in Central California, contributed to the decrease in attendees. The Sonoma County Fair offered additional security measures to enhance attendee confidence, but the timing of the tragedy in Gilroy kept some people home, he attests.There were metal detectors, bag checks, and enhanced perimeter patrols. 

Additionally, one of the fair’s traditional big attractions, the annual horse races, are in decline. Muelrath cited a $1 million drop in revenue since 2007. 

Over all, the carnival brought in $1.62 million, just a small dip from 2018, and the livestock auction hit $1.69 million, which increased since last year. 

Bartling added that the rodeo and monster truck show both drew large crowds. 

“Attendance was down a little bit, but overall, it was a great fair,” she states.

Both Bartling and Muelrath agree that the fair needs to focus on drawing in younger fairgoers; and she, too, notes that horse racing is no longer a major draw. While it will be included in the fair’s 2020 lineup, looking further down the line, the races are not locked into place. 

What will definitely repeat is the Brew Fest, which Bartling found a big success. The fest offered unlimited tastes of over 50 beers and ciders, and following the Saturday event, David Victor performed hits of Boston and Styx at the community stage. 

As an additional, draw, Bartling asserts that the fair is looking to move the October Sonoma County Harvest Fair to the overall county fair next year. 

Admission prices this year were $15 for adults, and $7 for children age 7-12; children 6 and under were free. There were discounts for pre-purchasing tickets. 

Children 12 and younger received free general admission to the fair every Thursday, while seniors age 60 and over received free general admission to the fair every Friday. On Wednesday, Aug. 7, bringing at least two non-perishable food items to donate to the Redwood Empire Food Bank and received $4 off general admission.

The first Thursday of the fair was Kid’s Day, an event that drew hundreds of families to the fairgrounds. 
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