Jessica Fernandes, Michelle Johnson, Alison Wells and Sarah Cummings gave advice on how to cultivate youth leadership in the fair industry. (VT Photo)

REPORTING FROM ANAHEIM, CALIF. — Fairs have always sought out the youth demographic when it comes to their audience, but a panel at this year’s Western Fair Association Convention and Trade Show in Anaheim, Calif., Jan. 5-8, looked at today’s youth for another potential resource: the future of the fair industry.

The ‘Start Cultivating Youth Leadership’ panel looked at a few ways to entice youth to consider the fair, including agriculture education, fair internship experience, and mentoring.

“Although everyone who works in the fair industry is young at heart, the fair employee is an aging demographic,” said Michelle Johnson, program supervisor and youth program coordinator at California State Fair in Sacramento. “Planning for the future beyond your own experience and even your own lifetime is important if we want the fairs to thrive.”

Jessica Fernandes, operations division vice chair of California Agriculture Teachers Association (CATA) and an agriculture teacher in the Buena Park (Calif.) school district, said that part of the issue is the actual teachers, who often have limited agriculture experience.

“Agriculture teachers today are not what they used to be,” said Fernandes. “It used to be that agriculture teachers came out of the field as retired farmers, or industry folks who may have decided to do something different.”

“Now, more than 30 percent of agriculture teachers never took an agriculture class in high school or worked in agriculture, and have no background experience in agriculture,” she added.

Revamped and regulated curriculum will help students and teachers become more well rounded, with requirements including a leadership component and supervised agricultural experiences each year.

CATA is also trying to recruit more agriculture teachers through going to conferences, a new marketing ‘Teach Ag’ campaign and National Teach Ag day.

“Being an agriculture teacher does not mean you are farming — kids these days hear the word farming and they think ‘dirt and ‘hard work,’ but there are other opportunities there,” Fernandes said. “We’re feeding the world, and we’re feeding the kids in our schools with things we’re doing in our agriculture programs.”

Along with traditional education, it’s important to provide opportunities for hands-on experience at the fair. California State Fair puts together a Youth Task Force each year of 15 kids ages 14-18. They work at the fair during the summer for four months, through planning, fair and breaking down the event.

“We do leadership exercises when we meet and teach them how to have a professional presence and professional handshake,” said Johnson. They are exposed to fair professionals such as CEO Rick Pickering who spoke to the group for 45 minutes last year.

Not only is the fair creating a pool of experienced potential employees, the youth also produce a ‘what’s in now’ report each year where they outline current interests that’s then made available to the executive staff and board of directors. Also, at the end of the fair, the Youth Task Force reviews the event.

“These are teenagers who basically live at the fair for 17 days, so they see everything and it’s very valuable for us,” Johnson added. Not only do the kids get fair experience and industry exposure, they receive school or volunteer credit, an item for their résumé, and written recommendations.

Mentorship is also key to getting youth invested in the fair industry. California State Fair’s Alison Wells recommends introducing kids to everyone involved in the fair from office staff to management to maintenance.

Sarah Cummings of the Salinas Valley Fair in King City, Calif.said that she wouldn’t be in the industry if it wasn’t for mentors.

“Finding something you’re passionate about and giving that gift to someone else is so important,” she said. “People shared their passion with me and it got me passionate about something I didn’t realize I was interested in and put me on an incredible path.”

“You never know when that one second of your time is going to make a critical difference in someone else’s life,” she added.

Each year the Blue Ribbon Foundation, sponsored by Butler Amusements, brings five internships to the convention, and 2013 marked the first time an international intern attended.

“This was a real pet project of Butch Butler’s and I’m so excited and proud to see it keep growing,” said WFA Executive Director Stephen Chambers. The program entered its sixth year in 2014. “When 10 years go by we’ll have had 50 people to the convention, and there’s going to come a day when people who started out as those interns will be on the WFA board or even going into the WFA Hall of Fame.”

Though the final walk-up registrations aren’t yet processed, Chambers estimated attendance for the convention was around 1,200; up from about 940 last year, and the 2015 trade show is already 70-percent filled.

“There were about a dozen people who couldn’t make it because of severe weather back east, but we were up a significant amount for activities that required tickets,” he added. More than 600 attended the Hoedown at OC Fair in Costa Mesa, Calif., up 20 percent from 2012.

“I was just so thrilled when I got to the Hoedown and saw how great it looked,” said Chambers. “I’d like to say that WFA was the mastermind behind that, but we’re just lucky that our members are so involved and know how to throw such an amazing party.”

Next year’s WFA Convention and Trade Show will take place in Reno, Nev., Jan. 11-14.

Interviewed for this story: Stephen Chambers, (916) 927-3100; Sarah Cummings, (831) 385-3243; Jessica Fernandes, (714) 992-8778; Michelle Johnson and Alison Wells, (916) 263-3189