DIXON, California’s Lambtown USA festival, held each July, manages to simultaneously entertain and educate urbanites and create a market for shepherds and wool fanciers.
“What we’ve tried to do is create a festival that will be beneficial to shepherds and the general public. We want to find out what they want to see and then give it to them,” said Dana Foss, Lambtown Fiber Fair Chair.
The result has been a one day event that looks like a county fair with an emphasis on lamb and wool. There are sheep dog trials, a shearing competition, a wool show and sale, a Sheep-to-Shawl competition, a parade of breeds, along with an entire flock of other events including live entertainment, food booths featuring lamb products, and vendors with wool and lamb products for sale.
There are many activities happening at Lambtown USA including sheep shows, sheep herding trials, hand felting, train rides, vendor booths and much more.
The program for the festival isn’t fixed. In 2006 a seminar on niche marketing, featuring Agricultural Extension Service speakers from the University of California at Davis, is in the works, as is one on prescriptive grazing. A panel on the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) has been confirmed for 2006 and also a fiber sheep show, judged by Martin Dally, plus a Jackpot market sheep show, organized and sponsored by Bar-Ale Feeds. There will also be a Hoof-to-Sweater fashion show, and national spinning competition. In addition, in late March the organizing committee voted to add a half day to the festival by opening it on Friday noon rather than Saturday morning. Friday admission will be free. Many of the programs are put on in cooperation with the University of California Agricultural Extension, UC Davis, and California Wool Growers Association/California Sheep Commission.
Getting Sheep People & Curious City Folks To Attend
Foss said the festival organizers knew that shepherds worked with sheep pretty much all day and all week. They wanted to create an event that would feel like a holiday from constant working with sheep but that also would include business opportunities. To that end shepherds are encouraged to sell breeding stock via the Parade of Breeds or, this year, the Fiber Sheep Show. They can also sell fleeces or finished wool products via vendor’s booths.
All these things attract shepherds, spinners, and knitters. But they also bring a public that is interested in things agricultural and festive.
“We live near the San Francisco Bay area where a lot of people have lost touch with where their food and daily materials come from,” Foss said. “Some of them say things like, ‘Oh, you mean you don’t have to kill the sheep to get the wool?’ We want to show them where lamb and wool products come from and how they are produced.”
That the public does want to learn these things is proven by the fact that more than 20,000 of them came for the 2005 Lambtown USA festival. But things haven’t always been so good for Lambtown USA. During its 20-year history the festival has moved from downtown Dixon to the fairgrounds, back to downtown, and now back to the Solano County Fairgrounds again. During those venue changes attendance fluctuated from 3,000 to 35,000 and the festival struggled not only for an identity but also for leadership.
“I was president of the downtown association in 1999 when the Chamber of Commerce dropped this event,” Foss said. “At that time it had become a street festival like any other street festival in the Bay area. On any weekend there might be five or six similar events in the area. Attendance had dropped dramatically and it was harder and harder to get quality vendors. We really wanted to bring back the sheep emphasis so the first thing we did was bring back the sheep dog trials. That had always brought a lot of spectators. We also brought back the shearing competition.”
For Best Results, Stick To The “Sheep & Wool” Program
While the new organizing committee was remaking events to reflect the lamb and wool theme it was also cleaning up the vendor database. People selling imported gee-gaws were not going to be invited in the future.
Lamb dishes are served by all food vendors.
“We wanted to make this more of a juried event where vendors were required to have at least one lamb and wool product,” Foss said.
The committees developed guidelines.
“If you are serving food, you have to have at least one lamb item on your menu, unless you clear it with the Food Chairperson at least 30 days in advance of the Festival,” the 2005 guidelines for a $300 food booth read. “All food that will be served must be on your application. You will not be able to sell any food item that is not listed. This is for your own good, to reduce duplication of the item(s) you are serving. The Food Chairperson will check all booths and will have the final say.”
The Food Chairperson is in charge of the Food Vendor Committee. There are numerous other committees including the Craft Vendor Committee, Fine Arts Show Committee, Lamb Barbecue Cook-off Committee, Entertainment Committee, and Fiber Arts Committee.
“The committees are small and usually made up of the chairperson and a couple of other people,” Foss said. “The chairpersons usually do most of the work. On the day of the festival we get additional help from community organizations, like churches, to help with things like refuse disposal.”
Volunteers & Donors
Lambtown USA is short on volunteers, however. But those that they do have each carry out well defined tasks and are honored and appreciated.
“We could not bring the Lambtown USA Festival to you without some great volunteers. All committee members and Chairpersons are volunteers. The generous contributions of their time, and the time donated by the companies they work for, are appreciated,” the festival’s web site says. It then follows up with photos and biographies of each of the committee chairpersons.
Dana Foss is appreciative of all volunteers. She’s particularly appreciative of skilled and experienced volunteers.
“When I took this over I’d never organized any kind of event. There was nothing to guide me,” she said. “Dee Osborne came to one of our early volunteer meetings. She had been organizing craft fairs and fine arts shows. Her experience was invaluable.”
A few years ago the volunteer leadership of the festival decided that if they incorporated Lambtown USA, and obtained non-profit 501(c)3 corporation status from the IRS, it would be easier to obtain donations to balance their $30,000 to $40,000 annual budget. The process was lengthy and involved articles of incorporation, by-laws, and complex forms from the IRS. Foss says they are still waiting to find out if the effort was worth it.
“Last year was our first year with 501(c)3 status,” she said. “We’re still waiting to see if it will help.”
Lambtown does have a fairly long list of donors of cash, in-kind contributions, and contributions for gift baskets. Contributors include local corporate and government sponsors such as Budweiser, the City of Dixon, Superior Packing, Vacaville Reporter and the California Sheep Commission. Contributors are classed from Platinum ($2,500) to Patrons who donate $99 or less. Numerous small business and individuals donate at the Patron and Bronze ($100 to $999) levels.
Entry Fees, Publicity & Communications
Supporting the festivals through donations and booth fees is part of the financial strategy. Organizers have struggled with whether to charge an entrance fee or not. For most of the life of the festival entrance has been free. At one time, when it was at the fairgrounds for the first time, entrance cost six dollars.
“That was one reason for declining attendance,” Foss said.
Last year organizers decided to charge a dollar. But they suffered from a perennial problem all volunteer-led organizations have: Spotty co-m-mun-ic-a-tions.
Everyone enjoys having plenty to see and do, even if it wears them out.
“The newspapers decided just to rerun the same story from 2004 for the 2005 festival. That said it was free,” Foss said. “Then the people responsible for putting up the banners didn’t get around to it until the day before the festival and those were the old banners.”
There were a lot of people who were let in for free in 2005. Communication will be more coordinated this year. The entrance fee on Saturday will be $2. Children under 13 will be admitted free.
For those who want to learn from Lambtown USA’s successes and tribulations and put on their own festival Dana Foss encourages them to visit the festival and observe what is being done. If you’re too far from Dixon to attend Lambtown USA go to a festival near you. Foss also encourages use of the Internet.
“There are a lot of good events across the country and I looked at what they were doing on the Internet,” she said. “I used a lot of the events they were doing to build our event.”
The lesson from Dixon, where there used to be more sheep than people, and Lambtown USA appears to be honor the lamb and wool theme; persist; honor your volunteers; communicate; and have a good time.
The 2006 Lambtown Festival will be held July 28-29, 2006. For more information visit their website: www.lambtown.com.