January 08, 2018

Photo Essay: Farming at the LA County Fairgrounds

I'd been to the LA County Fair in Pomona a couple of times early in my history of living in California, but over the years, I've learned that there's more to the so-called "Fairplex" than meets the eye.

Sure, the fairgrounds have been home to the LA County Fair since 1922, and they host a number of other large-scale, special events throughout the year. The present-day footprint of the fairgrounds also, however, includes the former site of the Pomona Assembly Center, a detention camp for Japanese-Californians during the first few months of World War II in 1942.

And, as I've learned relatively recently, there's also the former office of artist Millard Sheets (director of the Fair’s fine arts exhibit for 25 years, and the nephew of the fair's first president), a train museum, and a garden railroad there.

And while most county fairs will have you bring your farm to it—for any number of agricultural displays and demonstrations of horticulture and animal husbandry—Fairplex has got its own farm, which is open all year, not just during the county fair.

Of course, the grounds for that first fair were built on top of a beet and barley field smack-dab in the Pomona Valley's middle of nowhere, surrounded by orchards with the San Gabriel Mountains looming in the distance.

Now, Fairplex can count among its neighbors an airport, an amusement park, a Sheraton hotel, a university, and a hospital. It's like its own microcosm.

The Farm at Fairplex dates back to the 1940s and 50s, when it was more of a "farm attraction" of the fair—with various living history demonstrations to teach kids and families what life on a farm had historically been like.

And much of that "old farm" flavor is still there, though the new-and-improved farm facility is far more focused on sustainable living...

...actually raising animals, growing crops, and teaching kids where food comes from (other than a drive-thru) and how to eat healthy.

Thanks to a grant awarded in 2012, what began as a half-acre farm has expanded with an additional three acres—though, given the surrounding development, the Farm at Fairplex is more of an "urban farm" than a recreation of a rural environment.

That's not to say that there aren't plenty of traditional farms in California. The state that most people associate with cities—San Francisco, LA, Sacramento—actually produces nearly half of all the fruits, nuts, and vegetables grown in the U.S. And some of them are only grown in California. How's that for "heartland"?!

Each year, the Farm at Fairplex grows an average of ~150 specialty crops, all of which are organic...

...whether they're fruits and tree nuts, herbs and spices (like Ocimum basilicum, a form of sweet basil that smells like cinnamon)...

...or vegetables like squashes...

...and nightshades like the turkish or Ethiopian eggplant (Solanum aethiopicum)...

...the "Fairy Tale" eggplant (Solanum melongena)...

...or any other varieties of aubergines...

...or teeny tiny tomatoes.

The LA County Fair is big business now, just as it was from the start. Just three years in, attendance had already jumped into the six figures—not bad for a five-day event in September, the hottest month of the year.

Even during the Depression, when the surrounding counties couldn't afford to put on their own fairs, the LA County Fairgrounds served as home base for the "Tri-County Harvest Festival," also encompassing Orange and Riverside Counties from 1932 to 1937.

From 1942 to 1947 during World War II, the military had taken over the fairgrounds—not just for the Japanese war relocation effort but also to house German and Italian prisoners of war and to train soldiers to fight in desert conditions. And when the fair reopened in 1948, it was more popular than ever—so popular that its attendance surpassed the one-million mark for the first time.

No matter how many carnival attractions or grandstand performances have been added over the years, the LA County Fair has always paid tribute to and welcomed young farmers. And while the farm area of the fairgrounds has expanded dramatically beyond the "Storybook Farm" that opened in 1962 (now known as California's Heritage Square) and the FairView Farms livestock area at the beginning of this millennium, so too have the fairgrounds themselves—from 43 acres in 1922 to 543 acres today.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Tiny Villages at the LA County Fairgrounds
Photo Essay: A Hike Through California Coffee & Exotic Fruit
Photo Essay: Brooklyn Grange Rooftop Farm
Photo Essay: Wine Dinner in the Garden

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