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Changing Times Brings Adaptation To Colorado State Fair

Not just in Colorado, but all across the country, more people are moving from rural towns to cities. Since it takes fewer people to run farms these days, what’s the role of one of rural america’s the highest profile institutions: the state fair?

The divide between urban and rural life in Colorado is in the spotlight, the movement for a 51st state is the latest example. It’s based on the idea that Front Range city dwellers can’t see eye to eye with their rural counterparts.

State fair officials recognize that divide and are trying to adapt to stay relevant.

“I think the point of state fair, the real meat and bones of it, is that it’s for the people who don’t know a lot about agriculture and haven’t seen that side of it and try to bridge that gap between us,” said Wilson Ogg, a Colorado member of FFA.

FFA used to be known as the Future Farmers of America, but changed their name to be more inclusive.

Bridging the divide is a sentiment that’s evolved over time, just as agriculture as an industry has shifted. Every change the fair has made has been deliberate, said Colorado state fair director Chris Wiseman. There have been attempts to put a focus on local products, embrace craft beers, and move beyond livestock showings.  

“Even the kids who participate now, 50 or 60 years ago would’ve been more rural-based, but any more they’ve become more urban-based,” Wiseman said.

Even though the fair began as an event intimately tied to farming culture, to survive it needs to be inclusive, Wiseman said.

“Not only is it a celebration of agriculture, which is the second largest industry in the state of Colorado, it also is a celebration of the state as a whole,” Wiseman said.

There’s also been a blurring of that line that separates urban and rural life. Youth groups like FFA and 4-H are slowly creeping into big cities. Municipalities are embracing farm animals like backyard chickens and goats. Farmers markets are booming.

The urban crowd seems to be responding, and feels like part of the tradition.

“I think it’s something very important for children to see and to see where food actually comes from,” said Cheryl Bibby of Colorado Springs. Bibby didn’t grow up on a farm, but now raises her small chicken flock at her home.

“So many of the kids grow up these days and think food comes from the grocery and that’s the most thought they give to it. So I think this is very relevant,” Bibby said.

With rural population in decline, a state fair forty years from now will most likely look and feel much different than today’s.

“My hope would be that it’s bigger than it is today,” said Kenton Ochsner, director of Colorado’s FFA chapter. “My hope is that we have more people that have an interest and passion and desire to be a part of the state fair 40 years from now than we do today. And that’s contradicting to what production agriculture numbers are doing, but I think it can happen.”

As KUNC’s managing editor and reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I edit and produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.
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