Blue ribbons, ice cream cones and music are back as Malheur County Fair cranks up

A drone view of the Malheur County Fairgrounds in Ontario days before the opening of the 2021 fair and rodeo. (AUSTIN JOHNSON/The Enterprise)

ONTARIO – Last week, four days before the beginning of the Malheur County Fair, Lynelle Christiani’s office was busy.

Christiani, the fair manager, was on hold on the phone with a shipping company as she tracked down an order of wrist bands even as parents filtered in to sign up their children for 4H and Future Farmers of America events.

Meanwhile, questions about parking passes and ribbon entry forms from parents echoed as volunteers entered the office and asked Christiani for guidance on the next project.

“This is actually pretty calm,” Christiani said.

The fair will open Tuesday after a one-year hiatus because of the Covid pandemic and by then most of the preliminary work will be finished.

The fair is a major logistical operation with many moving parts – both obvious and subtle.

The first new, obvious item fairgoers will encounter are a series of black metal gates at the four fairground entrances.

Christiani said she developed the idea for the new gates four years ago and – with the help of a state grant – visited FFA chapters across the county and talked to their advisers to see if they could chip in with design templates.

“We wanted kids to be involved in our facility. The gates are spectacular and one of our successes,” said Christiani.

Christiani said FFA chapters from Vale, Nyssa, Harper, Ontario and Vale designed the gates. Then Owyhee Metal Works in Nyssa built all of the gates except the main gate, which was fashioned by the Vale FFA.

The gates cost about $20,000, said Christiani.

Christiani said grant money also produced a project to replace the bathrooms under the rodeo bleachers.

There are also subtler changes this year.

For example, every stall in the livestock barn will showcase tack pins, where tack can be stowed, said Christiani.

“In 2019, we didn’t have any,” said Christiani.

A long road of preparation

Planning for the fair begins more than nine months before the front gate swings open.

Christiani said she starts to search for fair judges for livestock and agriculture events in September. This year, eight judges will oversee the agriculture events while 13 are delegated for livestock.

Christiani said “lining out” the judges include setting up hotel reservations and acquiring food vouchers and designating a pay rate. Judges for horse events – such as Western Equitation 4H junior horse – cost $1,000 plus $500 in transportation costs. Cattle judges usually charge $1,000.

The beef show, which runs over four days, is the biggest at the county fair level in state, said Christiani.  

The beef show kicks off Wednesday, July 28, and concludes Saturday, July 31, with an auction that begins at 10 a.m.

So far, said Christiani, beef entries are down from the 2019 fair.

Christiani said in 2019 the fair recorded 97 beef entries but this year 80 registered. Christiani said she was unsure whether other entries for other categories were down.

Christiani said there was a lot of uncertainty regarding whether there would be a fair this year. She said she began to prepare in April for a modified version of the fair that would be smaller and with the expectation there would be fewer people allowed because of statewide restrictions.

The governor’s decision to lift statewide Covid restrictions June 30 created a new paradigm for Christiani and added to the workload.

She said she believes the entries are down because people weren’t sure there would be a fair because of Covid.

Lynelle Christiani, manager of the Malheur County Fairgrounds, works her way through tasks on Friday, July 23, as the 2021 fair gets ready to open. (AUSTIN JOHNSON/The Enterprise)

Volunteers are crucial

Christiani relies on volunteers and she always needs more help.

“You can’t throw enough volunteers at this fair,” said Christiani.

A good example, said Christiani, is the Red Barn where displays that showcase everything from art to Lego creations are exhibited.

“We probably have about 2,000 entries. So there has to be a paperwork trail on every entry. For each entry, someone has to track it,” said Christiani.

She said the fair will deploy 48 volunteers to the Red Barn this year.

Christiani said those displays always draw a crowd.

“We don’t make any money off it but is hugely popular,” said Christiani.

Volunteers also take care of the judges, said Christiani, ensuring they have all they need during the six-day fair run.

Fair kicks off Tuesday

Residents can begin to bring open class static entries into the fair on Sunday, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., and from noon to 7 p.m. Monday, said Christiani.

The fair officially opens at 2 p.m. Tuesday.

Christiani said there will be no carnival this year but there will be a host of other fun things for youth such as waterslides.

There will also be a strong entertainment schedule at the fair beginning Friday at 7 p.m. when artist Muzzie Braun takes the stage at the Desert Sage Event Center at the fairgrounds.

Micky & The Motocars will follow with a concert at 8 p.m. and the band Reckless Kelly opens at 9 p.m.

Admission to the concert $5.

The traditional ICA-sponsored rodeo will also be on the fair docket this year. The rodeo begins Friday at 8 p.m. and opens Saturday at 9 p.m. Also Saturday night the EH-CAPA Bareback Riders of Idaho will sponsor a show at the rodeo grounds from 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.

“Come and enjoy the freedom of no masks and good food. Come support your community,” said Christiani.

 News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected]

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