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Washington County Fair, a summertime staple, runs July 27-30 at complex on Northwest Cornell Road

FILE PHOTO - Thousands are expected to make the journey to Hillsboro next week for the Washington County Fair.Amidst the whoosh of carnival rides, the crunch of popcorn and the twang of a country guitar, it can be easy to miss the heart of the Washington County Fair: the bleats, moos and neighs from the big animal barns on the south edge of the fair complex.

The fair is set to kick off this Thursday, July 27, the pinnacle of a year of work and training for hundreds of kids in the Washington County 4-H Program.

"It's become a culminating event for kids," said Washington County 4-H Youth Development faculty member Patrick Willis. "It's a challenge of skills they learn throughout the year. It's a social thing; it's a leadership thing."

For 4-H participants, the program is a mixture of Washington County's agricultural roots and the county's future in tech — a blend of two different worlds.

"Washington County is unique because it has an urban-rural divide that's very distinct," Willis said. "The vast majority of participants come from rural areas, and Washington County has that." Other counties are either mostly rural, or mostly urban like Multnomah County.

Willis said the 4-H program is helping to bridge the two worlds by connecting kids from urban areas with their rural counterparts.

"We'll take them to meet with kids out in Banks living on a farm so they can interact together," Willis said. "Kids love to be with other kids — it's a common thing; a sense of belonging. They realize the city kids are really cool, and the kids out in the country are really cool.

"It helps build relationships and build connections. There are so many walks of life you can take."

The organization is more than animals, though. Washington County 4-H also includes exhibits of cookies, quilts, woodworking, science and tech projects.

Many of the new 4-H ventures are on display at the fair's "makerspace" area in the main exhibit hall, where "families and kids can come in and fiddle with stuff," Willis said.

The space will have everything from math puzzles, ropemaking and bridge building to a laser cutter and 3-D printer.

Go by train

The Washington County Fair has drawn hundreds of thousands of visitors over the last several years and while attendance used to be heavier on weekends, there's now a steady stream of fairgoers all four days.FILE PHOTO - Washington County Fair events include a rodeo at 7 p.m. Thursday night.

In 2013, the fair drew more than 100,000 visitors despite competing with the International Air Show. In 2014, it drew more than 109,000 visitors. But blistering heat held attendance to less than 70,000 in 2015.

With good weather predicted for this weekend and no large competing event, the fair crowd should be big — especially for its main performance event: country star Jake Owen on Friday, July 28.

The fair's growing popularity presents challenges," said Fair Complex Manager Leah Perkins-Hagele. Last year, for example, "We were caught unawares by how popular the concerts would be. We ran out of parking, and it was a little chaotic. People were frustrated."

Perkins-Hagele said the fair has worked out a new parking plan with Hillsboro Police and the Washington County Sheriff's Office, but suggests visitors look for alternative transportation such as light rail, which allows visitors to skip the hassle and cost of parking at the fairgrounds.

Visitors coming from the West, where there is no MAX, can park in the free parking garage near the end of the MAX line in downtown Hillsboro and ride the MAX in from there.

New rules guard against bacteria

If you're hoping to spend this weekend happily petting cows, goats and sheep at the Washington County fairgrounds, you can thank E. coli for ruining your plans.

Fair officials are stepping up efforts to keep the public from touching animals in the 4-H barn after four fair visitors contracted E. coli bacteria last summer.

Details of the cases are scarce, but Fair Complex Manager Leah Perkins-Hagele said all four were connected to livestock at the fair. While bacteria at fairgrounds has popped up around the country over the last several years, these were the first cases traced to the Washington County fair.

In order to avoid a repeat this summer, signs will explicitly tell visitors not to touch the animals or pens, Perkins-Hagele said. Previously, "we've relied on the exhibitors to ask people not to touch the animals."

The barns have previously had warning signs and handwashing stations, but now the stations have been moved to right in front of the entrance to the barns.

The danger comes from animal dung, which can carry the dangerous bacteria. Animals sometimes have manure in their fur. But even if people keep their hands in their pockets, "people can step in the manure and take it home and walk on the carpet," Perkins-Hagele said. "That's a high-transmission point — when people step in manure."

In the past, animals and people walked through the same space. This year, the fair will have animals come in one entrance and visitors come in another.

Pat Willis, a Washington County 4-H Youth Development faculty member, said the new signs are also a chance for the kids at the animal pens to educate visitors on bio-safety: "So much of what we're trying to do is to inform the public."

Willis said the 4-H program went through training on E. coli after the news of a county investigation last summer. Around 460 parents, volunteers and youth showed up and learned how to provide access to the animals while minimizing risk.

Lawsuits have followed E. coli infections at other fairgrounds, including a 2002 outbreak in Lane County, in which 82 visitors fell ill and 22 were hospitalized — the largest recorded E. coli outbreak in state history. Perkins-Hagele said there are currently no legal actions connected tolast year's E. coli cases.

Willis, though, is troubled by the idea of limiting the public's exposure to the county's agricultural roots: "Kids should still be able to pet a goat. What kid doesn't want to pet a goat?"

Check it out

What: Washington County FAir

When: July 27-30

Hours: 10 a.m. to midnight.

Tickets: Free admission

Carnival open noon to midnight.

Rodeo

July 27, 7 p.m.

Tickets: $15 at the gate

Motorsports Mania

July 30, 7 p.m.

Tickets: $15 at the gate

Music

Throwback Thursday July 27, 8 p.m.

Blue Oyster Cult, Foghat

Tickets: $15

Wolfstock July 28, 7 p.m.

Jake Owen, Russell Dickerson

Tickets: $30 at the gate

July 29, 8 p.m.

Super Diamond, Ants in the Kitchen

Tickets: Free admission

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