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Don't take the fair away from city people

If any of you saw a woman dressed in office clothes and black pumps, dashing around the Florida State Fair with a notebook in her hand and a grin on her face, it probably was me. In between covering the fair for the newspaper, I petted pigs, chatted with snake handlers, ate ice cream and massaged my aching feet on the Footsie Wootsie. I admired the newborn cows in the Mooternity Ward, looked at the antique farm equipment and wandered through the old houses in Cracker Country.

Sure, the food is greasy, the rides are expensive and the people bump into each other. But hey, the fair was fun.

My fourth trip to this year's fair (now you know how much I liked it) was for the annual governor's lunch.

Amid the congratulatory comments and political speechifying that were the order of the day, came a remark that disturbed me. Gov. Bob Martinez noted that the fair had outgrown its University of Tampa site in the '70s. He speculated that it wouldn't be much longer before the fair would become too big for its 300-acre home and be forced to move farther east.

What an alarming idea. If there's one thing I learned on this, my first year at the state fair, it's that the fair ought to be accessible to both country and city people.

Once you strip away the corn dogs, the games of chance and the Ferris wheel, the fair at root is a chance for farmers to show off. And it's a chance for the rest of us to learn about and admire what they've done. So pushing the fair away seems to me symbolic of pushing agriculture away, something that's done every day in Florida.

It happens on a large scale when a developer buys hundreds of acres of farmland and builds a subdivision. It happens on a small scale when a few city people decide to move to the country and are appalled to discover that the smells of the country don't live up to their bucolic expectations.

It may well be that growth and progress are inevitable, and that a lot of farmers would rather sell their land to a developer if they could get a good deal for it. In a few years, I may not see all the strawberry fields and groves that I drive past in my travels around the Brandon area. I understand it but still find it sad.

I'm an unlikely person to be preaching from this particular soapbox. As a child, the closest I got to agriculture was pulling crabgrass out of our suburban lawn. My favorite place to go on vacation was to New York City to visit my grandmother. I loved riding the subway.

Now I live in Tampa, and I doubt I'll ever move to the country. But as a reporter, I've met farmers who have taught me a lot. There was the chicken farmer in Brooksville who made me see that even though he was just one man against a growing number of new residents who didn't like the smell of chicken manure, his needs should be respected, too.

And there was the farmer in Dover who lost citrus, berries and tropical fish in the Christmas weekend freeze. That's just the way it is, he told me, and went back to work. His attitude was the rule, not the exception, among the farmers I spoke to. That surprised me, considering how people I know fussed a few years back when the stock market plummeted, and they lost a lot less than these farmers did.

I saw plenty of city types like me at the fair, asking loads of questions about the animals. One man told me he no longer had a fair to go to in Connecticut, where he lives. A mall was built over the fairgrounds.

I'm sure the fair will grow. But that growth should be in quality, not a quantity that would force the festivities to move farther away from those of us who need to be reminded of what the fair is all about _ and have a good time while we're at it.