MILTON — The Santa Rosa County Fair supports local agriculture, continuing a 26-year tradition.

“A fair is a place that bridges the gap between agricultural research and agricultural extension to the broad-based general public,” said Kyle Holley, United Way of Santa Rosa County’s director of development.

Fair associations are as old as the state itself and described in Florida Statutes. A fair’s job is to expose the public to things that are agricultural, and to communicate those aspects, according to the statutes.

PROMOTING EDUCATION

The Santa Rosa County Fair, which targets families with young children, aims to educate residents on farm to table and closet principles.

“We want to provide a great introduction to agriculture because it’s the source of our food and our clothes,” Holley said.

Santa Rosa County is particularly sensitive to the clothing element because the area grows a lot of cotton. Annually, $64 million in revenue reportedly comes from cotton and peanuts produced here.

While some fairs have moved in the direction of chasing revenue, the Santa Rosa County Fair has maintained its primary goal of promoting agricultural knowledge, organizers said.

“The way we think about things is, the rides and the food and the fun that the kids can have is the reward for coming to learn something,” Holley said.

“And the revenue from the rides and the food is the source of the charitable dollars for building out more infrastructure for youth agriculture education.”

All of the fair’s workers are volunteers, and members of the board of directors are actively involved in every aspect.

AN EVOLVING EVENT

The fair is currently in the transition phase. Since last year’s event, organizers have spent $150,000 on infrastructure and $7,500 on youth programs — checks were written to kids in the form of “premiums,” or cash rewards.

The amount spent on infrastructure came from a $643,000 grant; the money for youth programs came from the sale of food and beverages. According to the board of directors, within the next five years, more money will go into youth agriculture and arts programming.

“This is something we hope to build on, so kids have a sense of pride in things that they make,” said Jada Nicholson, a member of the board and overseer of arts exhibits. “There’s not a lot of outlets for that anymore, and they like to show off their talents.”

Most of the fair association’s funding comes from state grants. A qualified fair association can receive legislative appropriations for construction of agriculture, education and promotion facilities.

Statutes require Florida fairs to show all of local youths’ talents, including arts and crafts, as well as their livestock skills. The Santa Rosa County Fair emphasizes livestock.

“We want to highlight what we’re doing,” Holley said. “We’re just focused on us getting a great introduction and good experience to young families with young kids, and then providing an avenue for middle school and high school kids to show their work.”

‘NICE FAMILY ATMOSPHERE’

The fairgrounds’ total area will be 20 acres, and currently includes three new livestock barns, the midway and the June Ates Arena. There will be a new exhibit hall, to showcase local artists, projected at 10,000 square feet, as well as a stage for musical performers.

The complex’s north end is known as the Santa Rosa County Agri-Plex. The state’s grant is helping to fund the second component of the Agri-Plex, the Santa Rosa Fairgrounds.

The midway is located on a grassy area cleared last year.

The complex’s south end is East Milton’s recreational park, and the June Ates Arena is within the park’s boundary. The arena was the “first phase” of the Agri-Plex, according to Holley.

The Santa Rosa County Fair Association, as a private not-for-profit organization, manages the county property, runs programs and produces events.

 “It’s a very nice fair. I love it a lot,” said Zena Carpenter, a singer who performed Saturday afternoon. “It’s not too weird, and there’s a nice family atmosphere.”

The fair is held during spring to celebrate the last frost and the time to start planting.

In addition, “We intentionally bring a variety of poultry to expose the small minds to the fact that there’s just not one kind of chicken,” said James Blum of the Panhandle Poultry Club. “It gets kids involved and keeps them out of trouble.

“It’s cheaper to raise chickens from the time they are chicks, as opposed to horses or cows. But it still keeps them involved.”

‘SELLING SMILES’

So, what’s next for this year’s fair?

Well, the livestock show begins 9 a.m. April 8; children from all other counties may join. The Northwest Florida Animal Clinic, a major sponsor, examines competing livestock free of charge.

After the event, which ends Saturday, it’s revenue calculation time.

Just 33 percent of sales from rides come to the fair association, with the rest going to the midway company, James Gang Amusements and other vendors.

The fair’s organizers won't know how much revenue they collected until at least 60 days after the fair ends, but they project an increase from last year.

Sales success is one goal for vendors but children’s happiness remains a priority.

“[I’m committed to] selling smiles,” said Zach Malone of James Gang. “For me, it's all about, whether or not they play my game, I still want to see them walk past in a better or at least consistent mood than what they were.”

Michael Anderson of James Gang said he wants people to recognize him and keep the business going.

“If I had a family come play my game three years ago, I want that family to be able to come back and say ‘Hey, you’re that one guy that hooked me up last year,’” he said.

While they wait for revenue information, they’ll just focus on entertaining Santa Rosa youths during the 2017 fair’s last days.

“I enjoy making kids happy,” Charlene Ford, a member of the board of directors, said. “I get involved first of all, for the community. There’s not a lot of things for people to really do in Milton, and so I get involved and try to make everything as budget friendly as possible. There’s a handful of us who put it together, and our volunteers are very much appreciated.

“You have to want to do it. We have a good group.”