SALINAS VALLEY — The 78th annual Salinas Valley Fair returned after two years of Covid-19 pandemic closures with crowds packing the fairgrounds in King City, living up to the theme of “Back in the Saddle.”
While total attendance numbers weren’t available yet, the four days from May 12 through 15 had packed crowds in the thousands throughout the areas, from rides to shows to concerts.
“The attendance blew us away, and we never expected the turnout that we got,” said Lauren Hamilton, interim CEO of the Salinas Valley Fair. “Friday was overwhelming with attendance. The gates were so packed, we haven’t seen that ever. Saturday blew us out of the water with the number of people coming through the gates.”
From getting to see families make a return to activities to students coming through to see livestock, Hamilton said it was heartwarming to witness the community response to the fair from a staff perspective.
The fairgrounds had eight full-time staff and hired an additional 25 part-time staffers, along with hundreds of volunteers, to run the fair. They also brought on a new security company and a new cleanup crew to keep the restrooms sanitary and the grounds free of litter.
The numbers for this year’s Junior Livestock Auction were also being tabulated as of last Tuesday.
This year’s Heritage Animal was a red angus cross steer named Willie, raised by Wesley Hill.
Hill is president of Salinas High School FFA and plans to attend Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas. Willie sold for $96 per pound, with an estimated total cost of $125,000.
“I was very proud to be able to do this and very happy that it made a lot of money for the Heritage Foundation,” Hill said.
Hill earned a $2,500 scholarship for raising Willie, and the remainder of the auction proceeds will go to the Heritage Foundation to help pay for improvement projects at the fairgrounds.
“It’s been a great experience,” Hill said of raising Willie. “I’ve had him for 11 months, and it’s my first year with beef.”
Hill has previously spent seven years raising lambs. This year’s show was his first year back to raising livestock for fairs after the Covid-19 pandemic shut down large events nationwide.
“It’s really nice to be back and be able to see everyone come out and able to support all the 4-H and FFA kids,” Hill said.
This year’s auction featured 645 total animals on the schedule.
“The auction was huge. It was probably close to our biggest auction we’ve ever had,” Hamilton said. “We were down animals, but the families were amazing. The supporters are great and made sure the kids are well-supported.”
The auction crowds were on par with pre-pandemic years, with the bidding going well into the afternoon after starting at 8 a.m.
“I knew people would be excited to come back because we haven’t been here in three years,” said Junior Livestock Auction Chair Cody Bassetti. “It was awesome.”
Bassetti added that he and the fairgrounds staff weren’t sure exactly what to expect leading up to the Saturday auction.
One of the large attention-grabbers was a 150-pound market lamb raised by Kyle Walker of Templeton FFA, which sold for $500 per pound. Walker’s lamb was the second to last auction held that day.
In addition, Bassetti said the champion animals also made “a lot of money,” but the totals were still being determined. Hamilton explained add-ons will continue through the month of May to allow for animals to sell for higher amounts, which changes their final figures after the auction.
“Overall, you couldn’t expect anything like this,” Bassetti said.
Bassetti credited the four auctioneers, 15 clerks, drink delivery workers and an estimated 60 to 70 volunteers with helping the auction run smoothly for its return session.
Hamilton and Bassetti noted the Heritage Foundation currently has no projects underway at the fair, but would meet soon after this year’s event to review which potential improvements could be started.
At the carnival, fair attendees were lined up to get back on rides and partake in fair food.
“It’s good to get out and experience people again,” said Chelsea Crofts, as she finished a ride. “The community has been so shut down recently that it’s nice to have a community event again.”
“Social media and the internet has been a good place to go during the pandemic,” added Justyce Shivener about how youth spent their time during the pandemic in lieu of such events as the annual fair.
Crofts agreed with Shivener that young adults tended to hang out with small groups and avoid big gatherings during the past two years.
“It’s nice to see the entertainment and come out and have food and not have to Zoom with friends online,” Hamilton said of the reaction fairgoers shared with her. “The whole entire fairgrounds has been flooded with families and people, and it’s just not one empty space.”
Hamilton noted the fairgrounds staff was eager to hold the fair, and this year marked that awaited moment they were working toward.
Exhibit halls featured the advent of digital entries and speeches, and the in-person exhibits were also plentiful. The floral and garden exhibits were an area that featured a large spike in entries, up to more than 700 this year after a 2019 total of more than 500.
Floral and Garden Supervisor Kim Schmidt worked with area high schools in Greenfield, King City and Salinas to drum up participation.
Schmidt said she went to students in the classrooms and asked them what they’d like to enter, then worked with them to put together projects up to specifications. She noted one table of football players who were reluctant at first, but then together came up with the concept of school spirit, resulting in more than 20 entries with that theme.
“They’re happy to enjoy the fun again and experience the fair,” Hamilton said of the fair attendees. “It’s been two years since they’ve had anything.”
The near future for the fairgrounds includes renovation to the Expo Building with SB-5 state grant money, which will be used to replace floors and update hoops. The revamp will improve the building as a sporting event center for local schools and athletes, Hamilton explained.
While Hamilton said the fall festival is on the to-do list, staff members were already busy with plans for a multitude of weekend events throughout the year. As pandemic closures eased, she said the fairgrounds was able to book small events starting in late 2021, and the entire 2022 calendar was booked within a short time.
Hamilton said that marked a return to normalcy for the fairgrounds and for guests to be able to have indoor wedding and quinceañera receptions.
“Our books filled up and every weekend we have events on the fairgrounds,” Hamilton said. “People are so excited to have that back. We are booked solid until the end of December.”