The Santa Maria Fairpark’s new chief executive officer, Richard Persons, and his staff are gearing up for this weekend’s Santa Maria Valley Strawberry Festival. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

As a boy participating in 4-H for 10 years, Santa Maria Fairpark CEO Richard Persons showed hogs at his county fair.

As a college student, he worked summers at county fairs, doing about 30 gigs at 25 sites all over the state.

So it’s only fitting that as adult Persons now works full-time in the fair industry.

Persons is the new chief executive officer at the Santa Maria Fairpark, which is home to the Santa Barbara County Fair in July. But before the fair, Persons faces his first big event with the 28th annual Santa Maria Valley Strawberry Festival this Friday through Sunday. 

“We’re looking forward to it,” he said. “With the strawberry festival we’re trying to put a little more emphasis on strawberries.”

This year’s theme is “Carnival Lights, Strawberry Delights.” A full schedule can be found by clicking here.

Persons, 50, joined the staff Oct. 1, coming from a similar job leading the Lake County Fair. He’s eager to get the sounds of carnival rides, smells of carnival food and sights of festival-goers on the grounds behind his office..

Persons grew up in Santa Rosa and showed livestock at the Sonoma County Fair, Sonoma-Marin Fair, Cow Palace, California State Fair and Napa County Fair.

He attended Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, selling about 50 hogs to pay for his first year of college, he said.

“I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do. When I first went to Cal Poly, I was an animal science major and thought I was going to be a hog farmer,” Persons said. “It took me about six weeks to figure out that there’s not really a whole lot of hog farms in California because there’s not any feed in California.

“Then, I didn’t know what I was going to do,” he said, adding he burned up a lot of elective credits taking all kinds of courses. 

After a break from college, he returned with a plan to switch to a business major, but ended up in agricultural management.

With his experience working summers at county fairs, Persons signed up for an entry level fair management class as an elective “because I thought it would probably be an easy A,” he said.

“About the third class-period I realized, ’Wait a minute, these people do this full-time,” he said. “Before that I thought the same thing everyone did — You’re only there the week of the fair, right? That’s the most common question I get about working at the fair by the way.”

After graduating from Cal Poly in 1989 with a degree in agricultural management, Persons began his career working first for Solano County Fair for seven years as deputy manger and then as manager at Lake County Fair for nearly 18 years.

“It was a pretty natural fit,” he said. “Originally, I thought I was going to spend all my time with little kids and their sheep. That’s not really what I do at all.”

When longtime Santa Maria fair manager Dennis Pearson retired last year, Persons said he and his wife’s love for the Central Coast prompted him to apply. 

In addition to providing career growth for him, Persons said it provided his wife, Terri, with potential job advancements she didn’t have in the small geographically isolated Lake County.

She now works for Caltrans District 5 in San Luis Obispo.

Kevin Merrill, president of the fair’s board of directors, said Persons’ lengthy background in the fair industry led to his hiring.

“He’s been in the fair business for quite a while,” Merrill said, noting Persons’ previous successes at prior job.

“I think he’s a good fit for us,” he added.

The Santa Maria Fairpark has seven full-time staff, a number that swells with part-time employees. The facility sitting on 34 acres operates on a $2.5 million budget.

In his first six months on the job, Persons said preliminary talks started with the fair board and relatively new Santa Maria Fairpark Foundation on much-needed projects, such as replacement of livestock barns.

“The livestock barns here, some of the them are 70 years old, which is not an uncommon situation,” he said, adding the project is in the early stages.

Other projects may include improving existing buildings, such as adding air conditioning, to make them attractive to groups looking for meeting facilities.

But for the next few days, the focus is strawberries as activity picks up with carnival and vendors’ arrival in anticipation of the three-day festival opening on Friday.

“That’s the part of this job I think most fair managers do it for. That’s the part that I love,” he said, noting a fair or festival means reuniting with old friends, some of whom he’s known for 30-plus years. “There’s a homecoming element to that, even though it’s my first time here. It’s always fun when that stuff starts to happens. You get done and you’re totally exhausted but can’t wait to do it again. People who don’t have that I-can’t-wait-to-do-it-again move on to other things.”

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.