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'City boy' leads DuPage fair through history
By Marco Santana | Daily Herald Staff

DuPage County Board Chairman Bob Schillerstrom, left, praises the work of DuPage County Fair President Jim McGuire, in orange, at a ceremony commemorating the start of the DuPage County Fair on Wednesday in Wheaton.


Marco Santana | Daily Herald

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Published: 7/22/2010 12:02 AM

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A self-described "city boy" doesn't usually come to mind when it comes to leaders of an agriculture-centric fair.

But there was Jim McGuire on Wednesday, his cowboy hat a stark contrast to his upbringing in the Austin neighborhood on Chicago's west side, directing traffic, solving problems and promoting the virtue and benefits of the DuPage County Fair in Wheaton.

As he did so, McGuire bristled at a question he says he hears repeatedly. With the county's farmland down to about 6,000 acres, why does the fair still center around agriculture education?

"We still celebrate the history of the county and the important role agriculture plays in it," he said, while riding a golf cart to his next destination: a flap involving a Chevrolet display. "We are an agriculture fair and will remain an agriculture fair. But we'll also continue to make it fresh and exciting for people to come out and enjoy."

The county fair opened its five-day run Wednesday at the fairgrounds at 2015 Manchester Road with a brief ceremony that included DuPage County Board Chairman Bob Schillerstrom just outside a commercial exhibit building.

Former "American Idol" contestant Danny Gokey closed out the day with a performance in the venue's grandstand, which later this week will host a Michael Jackson laser show, local bands, a blues night and a demolition derby.

While those events are expected to draw decent crowds, McGuire said the hope remains visitors will take a stroll through Ag-ventureland, an agriculture-themed park where children can learn about blacksmiths, rope-making, sheepshearing and weaving.

"We want to hold on to that tradition," he said. "The need to feed is going to be greater (in the future) and we will need new technology."

If he wanted an example of new technology, Warrenville farmer Steven Berning had just the thing in the Future of Farming exhibit on the fairground's north end.

He was showing off a GPS device that could be coordinated with a tractor to steer and plant seeds. The device makes farming more efficient, said Berning, a 58-year-old who farms 11 acres but has large farms in five other counties.

"Steering is just an evil necessity," Berning said with a smile "In the past 50 years, there's been so much advancement. The technology is here and it's working."

Although he acknowledged some older farmers - including his father - are reluctant to use new technology, he said it has changed the game.

"You don't have to go to college to be a farmer," he said. "But, more than ever, it helps."

As he finished up a quick walk around Ag-ventureland and headed off to speak at the opening ceremony, McGuire, who has been the fair committee president for eight years, said striking the right balance between technology and heritage remains a part of the fair's mission.

"It's an opportunity to see and learn and teach others agriculture," he said. "That is an important part of the message we have here. Everyone of us has ties to agriculture in every day of our life. We want to celebrate that."