Big, popular fair makes room for agriculture

Steve Brown/Capital Press A young fairgoer tries his hand milking a mock-up cow in the Puyallup FairÕs dairy barn. Such educational interactions are part of what CEO Kent Hojem sees as a traditional part of the fair experience.

Puyallup Fair relies on small-town feel to make visitors happy

By STEVE BROWN

Capital Press

PUYALLUP, Wash. -- The Puyallup Fair may be best known for its big-name concerts, thrill rides and trademark scones, but at its heart, it's about ag.

Kent Hojem, chief executive officer, points to his 4-H background as a foundation for "the focus that we leave on traditional aspects of the fair. We're constantly changing to stay relevant, but it's a delicate balancing act with what made the fair what it was to begin with."

It began with a small event in 1900 that showed promise, Hojem said. Participants "needed capital to buy property and sold 3,000 shares for $1 apiece. Those shares have stayed in some families."

The Puyallup Fair and Events Center, now a 169-acre facility that hosts about 160 events a year, is a nonprofit organization that draws 18 million people and has a budget of $23 million-plus a year. Its big event is the Puyallup Fair, which runs for 17 days every September.

About 87 percent of that budget is from admissions, public relations counsel Karen LaFlamme said. Most of the rest comes from rental fees.

Compared with the top 25 fairs in the U.S. and Canada, Hojem said, "We're the smallest town to host the biggest fair."

That small-town flavor is what makes the Puyallup Fair so popular, he said.

Hojem said an example of the agricultural focus is the Grange booth displays.

"We make sure we have a selection of top-quality, traditional booths," he said. "It's amazing how many people make it a point to go see them. They're fascinated by the care that goes into creating booths."

Another example is the Planting Patch, a permanent display near the children's attractions. Overseen by a windmill and scarecrows, the replica pioneer farm has 10-foot-tall corn, 6-foot-tall sunflowers, a pumpkin patch, fruit trees, hop vines, rye, vetch, grapes, mint, tomatoes and onions. Activities -- all geared to youngsters -- include cutting wood with a bucksaw, grinding wheat berries and churning butter.

"We're committed to farming endeavors, especially dairy farmers," Hojem said. "I know it's hard to pull animals off the line to create a show string. It takes a lot of time, resources and effort. We appreciate the effort that goes into creating a quality dairy show."

He said some fairs, for example in Canada, don't have animal events at all.

"Our barns turn into oversize classrooms," he said. "Part of the Puyallup Fair's mission is to educate people about farming, so they can understand where their food comes from."

He said he knows it's a question of when, not if, that kind of focus will disappear from the fair. "I hope I'll be retired before that happens."

Hojem said the fair commits itself to making exhibitors want to keep coming. "It's not just high premiums, but we let them know it's important to have them here. The same with livestock and vegetable producers."

He also keeps the connection open with exhibitors, he said. "For example, we host folks for luncheons, have them for dinner during the off-season to keep the connections open, make it easy for them to exhibit."

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