After a one-year cancellation followed by a smaller drive-through event due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Santa Maria Valley Strawberry Festival will return this weekend with some old favorites, some new acts and a slightly modified format.

Billed as the 33rd annual, the festival will kick off Friday and continue through Sunday with carnival rides, food and other vendors and entertainment on stage as well as strolling the grounds at the Santa Maria Fairpark.

While the weather is expected be rather breezy, forecasters say the daily temperatures should be festival-perfect, hovering in the mid-70s.

The theme for the 2022 festival is “Embracing It All! Yesterday-Today-Tomorrow.”

“We’re very excited to be back with an in-person event,” new Fairpark manager and CEO Caitlin Miller said between dealing with the little crises that inevitably crop up in the countdown to any major event anywhere.

Miller said she didn’t have a lot of input into this year’s festival and gave the credit for putting it all together to the Fairpark team.

“I’ve only been in the role 45 days, but the team was full steam ahead when I came on,” Miller said, adding that although the festival will represent a return to its pre-pandemic roots, it will still have a slight modification.

“This year it’s going to be an all-outside event,” she said. “We’re not using any of the buildings. The team decided to do that because we didn’t know what the [COVID-19] health restrictions would be.

“We had to get a little creative,” Miller said, noting the vendors have also been creative in adapting to the outdoor format. “A lot of the vendors were really hurt by the COVID restrictions, and some of them went out of business. So they’re also excited to be back.

“We have vendors that have been with us and supported us for a long time,” she added. “We have some that have been with us 30 years. So we really hope the public will come out and support them.”

The berries

Strawberries — Santa Maria Valley’s top crop — of course will be the main attraction, and unlike the 2021 scarcity of berries, the 2022 crop is shaping up to be the third-largest production year in the state’s history, according to the California Strawberry Commission.

Visitors will be able to taste and compare several varieties provided by growers at a booth set up by the California Women for Agriculture outside the Park Plaza Building.

Attendees will have a chance to wolf some down in the Strawberry Dessert Eating Contest set for 1 to 2 p.m. each day at the Sun Center Stage.

Vendors also will be serving up strawberries in a variety of ways, including strawberry popcorn, strawberry tamales, strawberry smoothies and ice cream, and strawberry-topped funnel cakes.

“One of the highlights of the festival is the Strawberry Art Contest,” Miller said, noting hundreds of children’s depictions of strawberries will be on display.

First-, second- and third-place awards will be presented in three divisions — first through third grades, fourth through sixth grades, and seventh to eighth grades.

On Saturday afternoon, Agriculture in Action will offer visitors a hands-on experience with tractors and other machines in the Michelob Ultra Minetti Arena.

The entertainment

Entertainment is also a major draw for festivalgoers, and the Sun Center Stage will feature a range of musical styles as well as magic.

Performers include Santa Maria-based dance band Steppin’ Out, Latin rock by Mestizo and by the Calo Band, country music by Anthony Ray, violinist Lunoi Mitani, rhythmic sounds of the Street Drum Corps and colorful dance performances by Ballet Folklorico De La Costa.

Stage magician Anthony Hernandez, who began his career at the Strawberry Festival more than three decades ago, will return for a series of Center Shows, each one different. 

Entertainers strolling the grounds will include interactive children’s entertainer Washboard Willie, who hands out rhythm instruments so the kids can join him in making music.

“We have a couple of new strolling entertainers, too,” Miller said.

Patrick Contreras, “Violin on Fire,” is an electric violinist from Fresno who plays music by everyone from B.B. King and REO Speedwagon to Santana and Michael Jackson.

“It’s really interesting to hear those songs played on violin,” Miller said. “He’s a real crowd pleaser.”

Contreras will be strolling the grounds as well as performing on the Center Stage.

Another new performer is Louie Foxx, described as the “One-Man Side Show performer whose specialty is magic” by Rebecca Barks, the Fairpark’s public relations and sponsorship coordinator.

Barks said Foxx will be strolling and interacting with the crowds but will also perform a few short shows on stage.

Other daily attractions will include lowriders from the Critics Central Coast car club on display, camel rides, rock wall climbing, a Toddler Town, the Midway of Fun Carnival and Midway of Fun Kiddie Carnival.

Friday is Free Seniors Day; Saturday is Pepsi $2 Kids Day; and Sunday is Fiesta Day, which will feature a Hispanic rodeo and concert for a separate admission price.