Mid-morning on September 20. 18 yellow school buses packed with eager, noisy students from all over Santa Cruz County roll past Deborah Fellow’s bronze cowboy at the entrance to the Sonoita Fairgrounds for the 104th annual County Fair. Carnival rides squeeze in next to the baseball park and the soccer field is covered with parked cars. The students march into Pioneer Hall where the tables are covered with locally grown vegetables, fruits, ornamental plants, and flowers. This morning Diane and I are helping Dr. Bob Hyland, the veggie supervisor, with crowd control. Bob engages the kids with guessing the weight of an enormous watermelon. A large, cheerful honeybee serves as backdrop for class pictures. Other displays promote environmental awareness, healthy living habits, foster creativity in arts and crafts, and responsible citizenship.
Outside on the patio, food and refreshments are served and live music plays on the bandstand stage. The air fills with the traditional music and dances of the borderlands: Country and Western, Mariachi, and O’odham. At the Livestock Pavilion, 4-H and FFA competitors are preparing their sheep, hogs, steers and small stock for the show ring, animals that will be sold at auction on Sunday to the highest bidder, a community-sponsored award for a job well done. Sunday sale day is both a sad time of separation and a pay day for their work, worry, and learning.
Farmers, ranchers, and gardeners earn their livelihoods growing food, but eating is an agricultural act in which we all participate. In Santa Cruz County about one-quarter of the children live below the poverty line and are food insecure. According to the UA School of Public Health they do not get enough healthy food to eat. At the fair, students can see their peers growing healthy food, having fun, and making a profit. And sharing a meal with music is a heck of a good way to bridge differences and make new friends.
Santa Cruz County has no public parks, playgrounds, fairgrounds, or public meeting place in eastern Santa Cruz County. Our Sonoita Fairgrounds fills this gap by hosting youth baseball and soccer, provides meeting places for Halloween and Christmas parties, organizational groups, and youth activities at affordable rates because we understand the importance of positive youth development and community get-togethers. Pioneer Hall hosts many weddings, funerals, quinceaneras, and birthdays. It’s also home to the local History Center that preserves our ranching heritage. And don’t forget the annual rodeo, horse races, horse show, ranch horse competition, roping contests; events that have taken place here for 100 years or more.
What some folks may not know is that the Sonoita Fairgrounds was built, owned and operated by the local community and volunteers, and not the Santa Cruz County government, unlike other county fairgrounds. To keep the gates open requires about $160,000 annually. Profits from the major events and individual donations pay the bills and for needed improvements of the grounds and buildings. When money gets short, as it often does, the community puts on barbeques, dances, and fundraisers and has fun at the same time. After years of pleading, the SCC Board of Supervisors recently recognized the good deal they were getting and chipped in with in-kind materials, equipment, and labor. This year they gave $20,000 to our general fund and $5m000 for the fair. The State of Arizona, because our fair is so well attended, has allocated $40,000 in recent years. And thanks to Judge Keith Barth, trustee labor from the state prison in Tucson helps with ground maintenance. But if Sonoita and Elgin are moved to Cochise County, local community support would vanish, along with Santa Cruz County and state funding.
Last Saturday Diane and I drove the 81 miles from Sonoita to the Cochise County Fairgrounds in Douglas. It is extremely unlikely that folks would drive that distance for their fair and the other events. The Sonoita 4-H/FFA Fair would close and a vital community asset would be lost for little or no gain.
In the livestock business, a ewe or nanny goat will often have twins. The first born is the dominant sibling while the other one gets stuck with a hind teat, like Sonoita and Elgin if we moved into Cochise County. So, we urge folks to join up, volunteer, and become part owners. The cost of membership is a bargain and even a hermit has fun at the Sonoita Fairgrounds.