One of the joys of the Manatee County Fair comes with watching young children marvel at all the livestock -- from heifers, steers and horses to rabbits, goats and swine, creatures large and small, all absent from urban neighborhoods and a rare sight indeed. Upon opening today and running through Jan. 25, the fair once again promises entertainment galore, from thrill rides and musical concerts to food and talent competitions.
The wonderfully quaint traditions kept alive by county fairs across America might play second fiddle to today's technology-driven culture, but these celebrations of our agricultural heritage serve as a reminder that farms and ranches provide more than food. Witness the youth tending to their animals, competing in arts and crafts, and thus learning values and skills that last a lifetime. 4-H and the Future Farmers of America members lead the way in preserving these traditions.
The contrast between tradition and technology can be found in the theme that the Manatee River Fair Association pinned on this year's 99th edition of the event: "Put Some Ag in Your Culture."
An economic power
Manatee County enjoys a strong agricultural heritage. From native Americans to the first European settlers, fishing, farming and ranching provided a bounty of nourishment. Today, Manatee stands out as seventh among Florida's 67 counties in agricultural sales. With a total economic impact around $2.36 billion, the industry supports an estimated 30,000 jobs related to agriculture and natural resources. Tomatoes and citrus drive this market. Manatee's prosperity is hitched to the agriculture wagon.
Not every Florida county stages a fair, but 50 do -- attracting some 5 million people annually, state Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam wrote in a piece published in the Herald's Sunday fair guide. Since entering office in 2011, Putnam has emphasized increasing economic opportunities and growth under a "Fresh From Florida" banner.
Under his stewardship, exports of Florida agricultural products have grown by almost $1 billion, a 30 percent increase, with around 25,000 new jobs created. By establishing 52 retail partnerships, Florida-grown products are now sold in more than 12,000 stores worldwide. Manatee County benefits from this, too, with $183.6 million in exports.
While the economics of the agriculture industry are vital, we also celebrate the wholesome nature of the fair and the emphasis on youth. Besides all the youth livestock shows, where else will you find pig races, kiddie pedal tractor pulls and strolling musicians? Also, a safe-cracking challenge new this year, and another whip popping competition.
Where else will you find strawberry shortcake, elephant ears and funnel cakes; Cajun catfish, Texas barbecue and smoked mullet; and corny dogs, hamburgers and pizza all in one place? Plus, you'll help support local service clubs and nonprofit organizations when satisfying those hunger pangs.
Yes, we're unabashedly bullish on the Manatee County Fair. Take the family and enjoy.