Competitors in limbo after State Fair of Virginia bankruptcy


Despite having nowhere to show off his prize pumpkins, Tom Valentour still planted the seeds for his giant pumpkins late last month. (Jahi Chikwendiu/WASHINGTON POST)

At times, the giant pumpkins Mark Fowler cultivates are fattening so quickly, adding as many as 40 pounds a day, that he says you can almost stand there and watch them grow.

Then — bam.

One humid day, a soft spot appears in the orange rind, and even though competitive growers such as Fowler will carve it out and drag fans out to the patch to blast it dry, more often than not, it’s already over. After months of growth, the pumpkin rots and collapses within days.

That’s how Fowler felt about the State Fair of Virginia. The event recently had been moved to a large property in Caroline County, the place where the legendary racehorse Secretariat was foaled. But the economic collapse hit hard. The nonprofit that managed the fair, SFVA Inc., tried to reorganize through bankruptcy court this winter.

Creditors rejected the plan this spring and bam — liquidation.

“It kind of blew us away,” Fowler said. “All of a sudden, it’s gone.”

After 157 years, the state fair was shut down. The sprawling 348-acre property south of Fredericksburg will be sold at auction in May, if not sooner.

“Dadgum,” said Kreig O’Bryant, another competitor who is now anxiously watching to see if the fair can be resurrected.

“Everyone is disgruntled and disappointed,” Fowler said. “We’re all kind of in limbo.”

It’s another symbol of the increasing urbanization of Virginia, long a place that defined itself as a rural farm state and took pride in its peanuts, cotton, tobacco and ham. Now, with its cities and suburbs swelling, people are wondering: Can the state fair be saved?

It was a place where children watched lambs being born, where girls screamed on roller coasters and boys got sick on deep-fried candy bars, children clung to ponies’ manes for bumpy first rides, moms hollered at pig races and, one year, an alligator got loose and went on the lam.

But it wasn’t just for the spectators. For all those who competed each year — with their lace, their Brunswick stew, their watermelons, their heifers — the state fair was the pinnacle. It marked the end of a long growing season for many, and the chance to show off the best of their talents and hard work. The fair reflected Virginia tradition.

State fairs have an important role beyond their cultural impact, said Jim Tucker, head of the International Association of Fairs and Expositions; over the past 200 years or so they have steadily improved agriculture in the United States by promoting developments and superior genes.

Virginia’s wasn’t the first to founder in a tough economy, though; state fairs in Nevada and Michigan also closed within the past two years.

There could be a new state fair this fall, if someone buys the property and can swiftly pull together all the pieces and permits that make the event.The auction house is in negotiation with a couple of interested parties, according to Mark Motley, president and chief executive of Motley’s Auction & Realty Group.

In Caroline County, they are counting on a new buyer. “It is the state fairgrounds, and we are confident that there will be a state fair there again,” said Gary Wilson, director of economic development and tourism for the county.

The Richmond Raceway Complex, which played host to the state fair for decades, has gotten lots of questions from ride and amusement companies, said Dennis Bickmeier, the president of Richmond International Raceway. But that would leave out the farming side of the fair, which he thinks is integral. There could be a carnival-type event in Richmond one day, he said. “But it wouldn’t be a ‘state fair’ because it would be missing the agricultural element, and the scholarships the state fair provided to high school students.”

Meanwhile, there is an inevitable splintering as people find other places to show off their hens and their sugar cookies. The livestock events, for instance, will be held at the Rockingham County fairgrounds in October.

Fowler and the Virginia Giant Vegetable Growers Association have talked to Rockingham as well about hosting a weigh-off for their pumpkins. None of the other possible venues seem quite as good as the state fair, several growers said. Some county fairs are held too early, when the pumpkins haven’t grown to their peak. And the timing for Rockingham isn’t ideal; growers risk losing the squashes before the competition if it’s held in the fall, and the county fair is too early.

At the state fair, some growers would even swaddle their pumpkins in shrink wrap after cutting them off the vine to keep them from shedding weight. And of course, they loved the crowds the state fair drew.

“I was pretty darn depressed,” about the state fair, said Tom Valentour, who lives outside Fredericksburg. Still, he and most of the other members of the group planted their seeds this week.

“It’s really humbling,” said Ed Robinette of Gloucester, trying to fight off bugs, bad weather, rot and other scourges during the 80- to 90-day growing season.

And yet, as the pumpkins grow, and strangers stop by to marvel at them, and the proud parents are stretching measuring tapes around their squashes and getting ready for the big weigh-off, there’s nothing like it, O’Bryant said.

Come state fair time, they would wheedle friends with tarps and tractors and straps to help lift the monsters into pickup trucks, then drive down the highway enjoying all the people honking and snapping photos along the way. A crowd gathered around a digital scale during the weigh-off, and would gasp and holler at the numbers. Last year’s winner topped 1,000 pounds.

Maybe the giant pumpkin weigh-off will be at the Virginia State Fairgrounds Complex in Doswell this year again. Maybe it will end up at a private farm in Northern Virginia that hosts a fall festival. Or maybe, several of the growers said, they’ll just gather in a field somewhere, have a cookout, celebrate another monstrous harvest and weigh the beasts themselves.

Susan Svrluga is a Virginia rover for the Washington Post, covering anything and everything that’s happening in the Commonwealth.
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