Solar cooking in Energy ParkPhoto by Todd Cooper

Future Fair

At 50, the fair is looking to grow up — but wants to do it right

Imagine the Oregon Country Fair’s 100th anniversary in 2069.

Fairgoers will arrive at the grounds near Veneta by solar-powered drones that depart every 20 minutes from bike-accessible parking lots around Eugene.

Musicians will perform on virtual stages, with no props, no lights and no instruments. The only ticket required for concerts is a virtual reality headset that gives you the full experience.

Wait — where are we going with this?

OCF turns 50 years old this summer, its golden anniversary. What, we wondered, will the Fair look like in another 50 years? Or in 25? Or even in five or 10?

We posed that question to Cynthia Wooten, one of the driving forces behind the original Fair 50 years ago. Her later career would include stints on the Eugene City Council and in the Oregon Legislature, and she answered the question in grown-up terms.

Wooten says the Fair needs to strike a smart balance between creating a mature leadership structure while maintaining the childlike wonder of the Fair experience.

“It’s an interesting question right now. The Fair and organizations in general I think have times in the life of the organization where change is inevitable,” she says. “Change is inevitable all along. But sometimes you come to a critical point in the life of an organization where major change occurs.”

Is the Fair at a critical juncture?

“It’s grown enormously,” she says. “And there is a need for a new kind of professionalism with the size that it is.”

For decades the Fair has worked on a consensus model, Wooten says, but may have outgrown its ability to function that way.

“So this is a move, I think, to a more a top-down governance style,” she says. “I would like it to be a Fair that has a balanced governance style, you know, where volunteers are respected and heard and have a strong collaboration with the management and board.”

At the same time, the Fair doesn’t want to turn its back on its roots. It can’t necessarily adopt a corporate structure and be successful.

“It’s different with our organization,” says Stephanie Talbott, the Fair’s assistant manager. “It is so family-oriented. You know, grandparents are now seeing their great-grandbabies crawling around on the land.”

That brings up the question of age. The Fair was founded by then-young Baby Boomers, who are beginning to reach the age of not just retirement, but mortality.

“You see people of our generation moving off the landscape,” Wooten says. “And I think that’s right. It is time for a younger people to be taking the place of those who, you know, did it before. And we certainly had that feeling about the generation before us. It’s a rhythm, and I think we can expect it. I’d like to see younger people take more responsibility with the Fair, but with adequate training.”

The Fair has a Council of Elders that can be joined by anyone who has worked at the Fair for at least 20 years and is 55 or older. The council is not a governing board or committee, but exists “to assist the Oregon Country Fair family by offering a perspective that only substantial years of experience with life and the OCF can provide,” the Elders’ website says.

“Within a family I think we are less likely to just dismiss older people not being relevant,” Talbott says. “I mean, we call each other our ‘Fair family.’ The elders are just as likely to reach out and say, ‘What are we doing to engage our youth?’ And the youth are saying, ‘Yeah, we’ve got to keep the elders to learn the lessons they have to teach.’ I really think that we’re a unique organization in that fact, and that we do have opportunities for people of all ages.”

All of this administrative visioning, though, begs the question of what the Fair might look like to its participants in another generation.

One vision of the future would have OCF become a kind of world’s Fair for environmentalism, modeling the latest and greatest in sustainable technologies and practices. Indeed, the Fair is already pursuing that vision and has been for years.

“We have actually a whole area called the Energy Park that’s devoted to doing just that,” Talbott says. “They rotate in various businesses and nonprofits to highlight technology around solar and wind [power]. There’s oftentimes a display of an electric cars on the property. We’ve got solar charging stations all over. Last year there was a model home, essentially a tiny house, you know, and there was a lot of information within that, around composting toilets and various different ways of sustainability. We do try to highlight that kind of stuff to the best of our ability.”

Just as the Fair is making a difficult decision to transition from informal consensus to corporate organization in its leadership, it needs to find the right balance between the glitter of new technology and its hippie roots.

One place that becomes clear is the question of communications. Cell service is spotty, at best, at the Fair’s ground in Veneta. While most Fairgoers don’t walk around with their faces buried in glowing cellphone screens, craftspeople selling their wares at the Fair would like to be able to accept credit cards — which means better communications.

Similarly, Fair security needs quick and reliable communications internally and with outside agencies, in case of emergency.

“There needs to be cell towers out there,” Wooten says. “There needs to be a whole ton of things technically. How is artificial intelligence going to have an impact on the Fair? Is the Fair going to stay basically like it was in 1970s? Or will it culturally evolve and be somewhat different? Most people don’t want it to.”

For Crystalyn Autuchovich, the Fair’s operations manager, keeping technology at a polite distance is the way to go, even if that means credit cards don’t work.

“We don’t want people to be staring at their phones,” she says. “We kind of discourage that to a certain extent. You know, we just, we simply don’t have wifi there accessible to our public. On our website we encourage people to bring cash!”