I’ll admit it – I’m a big fan of Ozark Empire Fair. While I didn’t grow up in Springfield, every summer I visited my aunt and uncle’s farm out in Clever, and those trips were often timed to coincide with the annual fair, which celebrates the agricultural roots of the Ozarks and the region’s unique culture.
Now, heading to the fair is a tradition with my own children, and we enjoy many of the same things I loved as a kid: musical acts, exhibits, food on a stick, the Lion’s Club Duck Pond, and perhaps most important for the kids, the rides on the Midway.
Now under way in its 76th year, the 2012 Ozark Empire Fair theme, Live Local, brings a new exhibit to the lineup, with the Live Local Expo occupying 37,400 square feet in the east wing. With the tagline “Support Local Businesses,” I knew a stop at the Live Local Expo was a must for this year’s fair visit.
As is implied by its name, Live Local focuses on local businesses and products, providing fairgoers with an opportunity to try – and buy – things, while at the same time, allowing them to keep their money in local coffers. With sponsorship from entities such as Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce and booths from companies that include Springfield Brewing Co., Benissimo!, Boot-Heel Produce, Fassnight Farms, PFI Western Store and Hy-Vee, there are a lot of opportunities to explore what’s available in the Ozarks marketplace.
Also intriguing is the Made in Missouri Market component of Live Local, which is basically a large, indoor farmers market area where fair visitors can buy local produce. Given that the fair is a venue where livestock, produce and crafts are judged, it just makes sense that now, people can buy produce at the fair, too.
Vicki Ables, president of Benissimo!, a purveyor of gelato and sorbet, was on hand at Live Local! handing out samples of her frozen product. Ables, who opened Jan. 1 and launched the company’s first product in May, said with such a new business, she wasn’t really sure whether she was up to working at the fair this year, but she said once she heard about the Live Local Expo, she made up her mind to go for it.
“We knew we had to be here – we’re all about local,” said Ables, who noted she buys local produce, such as peaches from a Stockton orchard, to use in her products whenever she can.
While her business focuses mostly on sales to retail outlets, Ables said working at events such as the fair will allow her to see customers enjoying her products. And with temperatures in the triple digits during the fair, I’m guessing that her samples – and the individual frozen treats for sale – will be well-received.
As for Live Local, she classified it as a big block party. “It’s very community-minded,” she added.
Eric Henderson of Boot-Heel Produce said he often attends the Ozark Empire Fair, but this year was his first as a vendor. He said he talked with fair organizers in the fall, and upon learning of the plans for Live Local, he knew Boot-Heel, which operates a produce stand at Sunshine Street and Zimmer Road across from the Walmart Supercenter on West Bypass, needed to be part of the lineup. The company’s produce includes watermelon, tomatoes, corn and peaches. When I walked by his booth, it was the smell that got me – the scent of ripe, fresh watermelon mingling in the air-conditioned wing. Henderson’s booth offers a choice of a chilled container of cut watermelon, or a huge slice of cold watermelon, for about $2. My husband and I decided to break our tradition of eating greasy food on a stick at the fair in favor of the watermelon, and it was a great choice, perfect on a hot Saturday.
We also skipped the giant sodas proffered by vendors throughout the fair in favor of Springfield Brewing Co. root beer in souvenir plastic glasses, available for $1. Cold root beer is a great thirst-chaser, and not only did we get to support a local company with our purchase of several glasses, but I also know from experience that it’s unusual to find a fountain drink at the fair for that price.
Area wineries, including Seymour-based Whispering Oaks Vineyard and Winery, also were represented, though, not surprisingly, they weren’t giving out samples – though I did overhear conversations that those had been requested by Live Local visitors. Earlier this year, Springfield City Council voted to transfer the fairgrounds’ lease agreement to the city from the Springfield-Greene County Park Board, opening the door for the venue to host events with alcohol. Fair organizers have maintained, however, that they don’t want alcohol at the family-oriented fair event. (Link to ) Even without wine available, I think there’s plenty of other great stuff to entice people to Live Local.
The 2012 Ozark Empire Fair runs through Aug. 4, so there’s still time to get out and experience old favorites and visit the new Live Local Expo, which also encompasses cooking-stage demonstrations. I know that fair organizers often look for new and different elements to draw in attendance, but I’m really hoping that Live Local becomes a regular part of the annual fair lineup. It just makes sense.