County fairs predate the existence of counties.

Actually, that can’t technically be correct, because it couldn’t be a county fair if there was no county. But you get the idea.

Fairs began thousands of years ago, usually as a means of village dwellers gathering to show or trade produce and other goods. It was also common for villagers to bring their cows, goats, sheep and chickens to fairs, hoping for a trade for something of equal value.

As society worked through its various levels of development over the years, fairs slowly became agriculture and trade showplaces, with vendors displaying their wares, and farmers and growers showing off their products. The object was to show how well they made or grew things, and if luck was on their side, turn a profit.

Fairs come in all sizes. There is, for example, world’s fairs, which are huge, expansive and tend to last for months. And there are county fairs, some of which may last only one day, depending on the size of the community they serve.

It’s safe to say that fairs are a bit of holiday like fun for those who go, and usually a good time is had by all. That was true in Roman times, and it is true today.

All of which brings us to today’s opening of the Santa Barbara County Fair at the Fairpark in Santa Maria. It’s the 121st annual incarnation of the event, and it will be perking along until Sunday evening.

There will be the usual midway rides, games and shows. There will also be the exhibition halls where all kinds of goodies will be on display and for sale.

Sign up to receive headlines in your inbox!

Breaking News | Local Sports | Daily Headlines | Local Obituaries | Weather | Local Offers

But, perhaps, the most enlightening aspect of the county fair is also its most educational element — the dozens of 4-H and FFA youngsters who will be showing off their animal-raising handiwork, everything from pigs to rabbits. All creatures, great and small.

The animals began arriving at the Fairpark’s holding pens earlier this week. The kids, mostly teens, will be busy grooming their animals for the competitions and auction sales that are, as a rule, the highlight of every county fair. 

The work on display has not been taken lightly. These young people often give up significant portions of their time learning the skills necessary to successfully raise an animal or nurture a crop. Along the way, they learn invaluable life lessons, meeting and overcoming challenges, which prepares them for the challenges of adult life and careers.

Most of the kids have been learning those skills since they were 8 or 9 years old. Not only do they learn about nursing a sick animal to health, they also learn money management, and the art of functioning within a set budget — a skill so many of our elected officials seem to have misplaced.

Learning overall responsibility is among the chief by-products of 4-H and FFA. You can’t miss a feeding cycle because you want to play video games or wear out your thumbs texting BFs. You learn that the animals you’re helping to grow depend on you for so many things. It’s a lesson in personal responsibility too powerful to overlook.

This is what the county fair is really all about. That is not to say you can’t have a bunch of fun at the fair — because fun is what it’s all about for fairgoers. But take some time to view the work of the 4-H and FFA kids. We’re fairly certain that when you look, you’ll see a future generation of responsible, hard-working Americans.