Of cabbages and cows: State Fair CEO shares an agrarian heritage

The most accomplished juggler working at the Washington State Fair doesn’t wear a tuxedo and would likely court mayhem if he tried to toss even one working chainsaw into the air.

Kent Hojem, Washington State Fair chief executive officer, juggles budgets with an eye to the future, and he juggles a mission that reaches back more than a century to the agrarian roots of the Puyallup Valley.

As chairman of the International Association of Fairs and Expositions, Hojem has seen similarities and differences in the way other nations celebrate themselves with local and provincial fairs.

At the Gimje Horizon Festival in South Korea, for example, Hojem said he witnessed a celebration of rice from the paddy to the pudding.

“What we saw there was a real connection with their agrarian society,” he said Saturday, on the second day of the four-week festivities in Puyallup.

There was an antique rice-threshing machine at the Gimje fair, and there were mats made from rice, and there was a game for children that involved capturing grasshoppers in the fields.

“That hands-on connection to the agrarian past — I think we can learn from that,” he said.

And there might be things that the world can learn from us, from our fairs and expositions.

“The notion of the county fair is uniquely American,” Hojem said while giving a brief tour of a few of his favorite fair attractions.

Yes, there’s the Fjord Fest in Norway, and yes, there are fairs in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and many elsewhere.

“But this,” Hojem said, spreading his arms, “all around us, is uniquely American — rides, food, games, the educational component, the competitions, art, home arts.”

Fairs have history, and fairs make history, he said.

“A lot of those events and festivals were drivers of economic progress,” Hojem said. “I think that what people forget — before TV was prevalent, you had fairs. A lot of products were introduced at fairs.”

Take the hot dog, introduced at the Columbian Exposition of 1892-3.

He points to Ginsu knives and the buckwheat pillow, available at fairs before flooding cable TV.

At home, Hojem said, he and his wife can count five sets of the knives and three mops once marketed as being miraculous.

But things that grow are what fascinate him most.

“One of my favorite places,” he said, entering the Agricultural-Horticultural Building, with its giant pumpkins and displays of items that nourish as well as attract us.

“It’s a real trick to get a squash this size,” he said, pointing to a squash about the size of an early Fiat.

“This building is one of my favorite buildings,” he said. “This is a celebration of our agrarian past.”

Yes, he has heard the concern that the fair has become too commercial, dominated by ways to spend money.

His answer: “The bills have to be paid. This fair is unique. We don’t receive any government support. We are one of the only fairs in the U.S. that pays property taxes.”

So he juggles.

It is, he said, a balance that is “extremely complex. You want the fair to be accessible to anyone. You don’t try to drive prices up too far too fast. You can bring your lunch to the fair. You could spend hours in the barns, at the free stages.”

Hojem also takes pride in the year-round availability of the fairgrounds, how visitors can attend weddings and trade shows, sewing shows and car shows, outdoor expos and a Victorian Christmas.

“We’re not a melting pot,” he said. “We’re a tossed green salad.”

He strolls to the grange displays, abundant with produce that could make a thousand salads.

Here’s the corn and cauliflower, melons and onions, eggplants, carrots and grapes, potatoes, tomatoes, pickles, pelts, seeds and wheat, beans, peas, peppers, peaches and a hundred other things grown, collected and shown by Washington grange members.

“This is the fair to a lot of people,” said Ag-Hort Building staff member Larry Owens.

This is very much the fair to Hojem.

“What we’re really in the business of is making good memories for our guests,” he said.

It’s about making good memories, but also recalling them.

For Hojem, that means dairy cows, especially the Brown Swiss variety. That’s the breed he showed as a boy, as a member of 4H.

So he is also proud, this year, to introduce the newly constructed Agriplex and Arena.

“Look at the wood beams,” he said. “Look at this place.”

Cows doze. Giant overhead fans turn. Hojem smiles, recalling the day he earned a trip to his own state fair as reserve grand champion with his Brown Swiss milker.

Milk? There’s a part of the barn, enclosed by glass, sterile, clean, where cows are milked.

Hojem asks, “Who do you know who’s building a milking parlor?”

He already knows the answer.

C.R. Roberts: 253-597-8535