Rides, pigs, monster trucks and a ‘zucchini in a bikini’: It’s time for the Santa Cruz County Fair

pigs race
Pig races are an integral part of any trip to the Santa Cruz County Fair.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Our county fair isn’t exactly a cheap outing, Wallace Baine writes, but it delivers an annual opportunity for a community to celebrate itself. Indeed, it’s one enormous talent show, for talents and passions that don’t always get their due respect. Come Wednesday, the funnel cakes and corn dogs will be calling you to the fairgrounds.

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Every September, just as the late-summer “naked lady” lilies die away, we in Santa Cruz County experience another bloom unique to this time of year — a sudden and undeniable hankering for corn dogs and funnel cakes.

That’s called an “unconditioned response” and you can lay it at the feet of the Santa Cruz County Fair, which has made September synonymous with deep-fried goodies and up-close encounters with livestock for generations of locals.

It’s time again for the fair, which opens its five-day run on Wednesday at the county fairgrounds on Highway 152 just beyond Watsonville.

For many in Santa Cruz County, of course, that’s a long way to go for a corn dog, and the fair isn’t exactly a cheap date. Tickets are $20 a head (less for those under 13 or over 62), plus a $10 parking fee, and if you want to see the motorsports events, there’s another $10.

As if to compensate for all that driving and expense, the fair offers its patrons … well, pretty much everything. Carnival rides and caloric-nightmare foods are a given. But there’s so much more going on than that. The fair is an annual opportunity for a community to celebrate itself. It is, in fact, one enormous talent show, for talents and passions that don’t always get their due respect — baking pies and cookies, growing dahlias and tomatoes, collecting W.C. Fields paraphernalia and images of the Eiffel Tower, producing pumpkins as big as a Toyota. This is where you can see, live and in person, the platonic ideal of a Red Delicious apple, or a “zucchini in a bikini,” and I swear I’m not making that up.

Humanity’s relentless urge to recognize excellence by bestowing awards might reach its zenith with the Nobel or the Pulitzer. But where’s the other end of that spectrum? It might be a blue ribbon at the county fair in the highly competitive “largest squash” category. And who’s to say which award is the most noble?

If there is a mission for just about any county fair in America, it’s to remind us keyboard workers that agriculture is the life force of American life, even now after the digital revolution. A deep respect for where food comes from is the gift basket we all get to take home with us. The county fair is the only world where it makes sense to award a blue ribbon to a jar of pickles. It’s the only stage on which a community can declare to the world that this particular 16-year-old from Live Oak can make a flat-out amazing red velvet cake.

If the fair was only about admiring baked goods and overgrown gourds, it would be a successful event. But it also encompasses art — paintings, drawings, sculpture, assemblage, photography. There might be more art by volume at the county fair than in all the galleries and museums in Santa Cruz County. And though there is a distinct everybody-in-the-pool! vibe with the vast arrays of art on display here, you sense that there are more than a few artists represented who aspire to one day hang in one of those galleries or museums.

a man rides a tractor past a Ferris wheel
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

From the prize flowers and bonsai trees to the themed collections, it’s easy to kill an afternoon wandering the pavilions, but eventually you’re going to have to follow your nose to the far end of the fairgrounds for an up-close-and-personal encounter or two with the animals. I wish it were otherwise, but September remains the only time of year when I can pretend to be a poultry judge, analyzing plumage on roosters. It’s the only time when I can watch tiny pigs racing around a little track one minute, and an enormous pig who’s essentially motionless the next minute (hey, maybe they can paint this guy orange and wheel him over to the pumpkin display).

For those interested in a bit more exciting entertainment than watching pigs nap, the fair this year will feature two monster truck/motocross events, on Wednesday and Thursday evenings, and a number of live bands including a tribute act of Journey (Friday, 7:30 p.m.) and another tribute band of Heart (Saturday, 7:30 p.m.).

And, well-known scientific fact, all of these activities make corn dogs taste a little better … except in the pig pens, of course.

a stand selling corn dogs at the county fair
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

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