In 1915, ranchers gathered at what would become Sonoita to form the Santa Cruz County Fair and Rodeo Association. Shares were sold for $1 each and rancher Wade Purdum donated 10 acres provided a fair was held each year.
Fast forward to Sept. 20, 2019, when 2,000 eager students from all over the county pour into the fairground, free of charge, to experience the 104th annual 4-H/FFA County Fair. In Pioneer Hall, the two of us are helping Dr. Bob Hyland, the veggie supervisor, with crowd control. Bob engages the kids with guessing the weight of a huge, blue-ribbon watermelon. A large, cheerful honeybee serves as the backdrop for class pictures.
Outside on the patio, food is served while the bandstand fills with live music and dances of the borderlands: country and western, mariachi and O’odham. In the Livestock Pavilion, 4-H/FFA exhibitors from all over the county – including Nogales and Rio Rico – groom their livestock for Sunday’s auction to the highest bidders, a community-sponsored award for jobs well done.
Farmers and ranchers earn their keep by growing food, but eating is an agricultural act in which we all participate. In Santa Cruz County, about one-quarter of the children are food insecure; they do not get enough healthy food to eat. At the fair, students see their peers growing food, having fun and making a profit. Sharing a meal with music is a great way to make new friends and bridge differences.
Eastern Santa Cruz County has no public parks, playgrounds or public meeting places. The Sonoita fairgrounds fills this gap with baseball and soccer fields, rodeo arenas, and meeting places for community events.
What some folks may not know is that it was built, and is owned and operated by the local community and unpaid volunteers. It takes about $160,000 per year for maintenance and operation, paid for with income from the major events: horse races, the fair, rodeos, horse shows and meetings. Recently, the Santa Cruz County supervisors have chipped in with in-kind materials, equipment and labor. This year they gave $20,000 to our general fund and $5,000 for the fair.
Also, because the fair is well attended, the State of Arizona in the past has allocated much-needed rural community development funds. But when money runs short, as it often does, the community puts on barbeques, dances and fundraisers to keep the doors open.
But if Sonoita and Elgin are moved to Cochise County, local community support would disappear, along with Santa Cruz County and state funding. The Cochise County fairgrounds are located 80 miles from Sonoita. It is very unlikely that our people would drive that distance for their fair and other events. The Sonoita 4-H/FFA Fair would close and a vital Santa Cruz County-wide asset would be lost for little or no gain.
(Richard and Diane Collins are residents of Sonoita since 1992.)