By Geoffrey Neill.

I’ve been going to the state fair since I was about ten years old. My family has developed a routine: the 4-H animals, the piglet races, a corndog for lunch, then depending on our timing, maybe the cavalcade of horses, or a hypnotist’s show and the quilting displays. But we always make sure to make time for the county exhibits. For the past thirty years, we’ve been county exhibit stalwarts. Working for CSAC has given me a different perspective on the exhibits. And this year, with the opportunity to help judge them, I got to appreciate them on yet another level. Honestly, I have mixed emotions.

Getting a behind-the-scenes look at the people who build the exhibits was pretty cool and judging them gave me a new way to evaluate them. But there were only twenty-three exhibits. Where are the other 35 counties? By my figuring, only one county with a county seat south of the geographical middle of the state participated.

There seemed to be a drop-off in participation during the recent long recession, understandably. But counties came up with other ways to finance these booths. Some work through their Future Farmers of America, others through their farm bureau, and others simply contract out the work (there are professional county exhibit builders; I never knew!).

I’ve been to (or at least through) all 58 counties. In my job, I compile and analyze columns of numbers in our DataPile that describe county demographics, revenues, and caseloads. I talk to supervisors and CAOs and registrars of voters and assessors about what’s really going on out there. But not everybody has that chance.

The county exhibits offer the opportunity to share, teach, learn and understand what makes each county unique and what makes all 58 important. The state fair is a chance to come together as a state and see what’s going on everywhere else. (To be fair, it’s also a chance to eat food that probably shouldn’t be fried and put your kids on roller coasters they probably shouldn’t be on after eating fried food.)

The state fair doesn’t have a building dedicated to city exhibits, JPA exhibits, COG exhibits, or air quality control district exhibits. The fair recognizes California’s 58 counties for their diversity and the role they play in people’s lives. Whether you live in a high-rise, a suburb or on a farm, everybody lives in a county that they identify with and get services from. But they only live in their own county.

There’s a certain trope to most the county exhibits, and I love them. Show me your prune trees. Teach me about your ghost town. Give me the short history of asparagus farming. Tell me where the best brewers and cheese-makers are in your county. Give me a free sample of Jelly Bellies. Or maybe two free samples. But you can also tell me about the Mojave Desert, The El Camino Real, or the history of Country Music. All of those have roots in California counties, too. But there’s no rule requiring counties to stick to a script.

Sacramento County broke the mold this year. Their animatronic figure is holding a can of spray paint and wearing a fumes mask. They’ve invited local artists to paint live on-site throughout the fair and the exhibit promotes the massive public mural projects that will be taking place next month.

The county exhibits are an opportunity to show Californians what makes your county yours, to share some piece of your community, whether that’s ag or art or music or, heck I don’t know. You’re the one who lives there. You tell me, next year, at the state fair. I hope to see you there.

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Originally posted at the California State Association of Counties.

The awards for this year’s entries in the County Exhibits are listed here.

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Geoffrey Neill is the CSAC Principal Policy and Fiscal Analyst in all policy areas.