Pomona Fairplex’s farm expert kept LA County Fair grounded

Don DeLano is making his way down a row of mint plants, pulling off sprigs, smelling them and handing them over. Here’s spearmint, chocolate mint, strawberry mint, grapefruit mint, all with scents reminiscent of their names.

Banana mint, DeLano observes, “almost smells like artificial banana.” Another of the 50 or so varieties is whimsically named iced hazelnut mint. “At certain times of day,” DeLano offers, “it smells like a caramel macchiato at Starbucks.”

We’re in the part of the Pomona Fairplex known as The Farm. Devoted to crops native to California, the 5-acre urban farm hugs the White Avenue side of the fairgrounds and has been DeLano’s domain, and his baby, since its creation in 2014.

Many of the mints will end up floating in drinks at the Sheraton Hotel bar just outside Fairplex’s gates. DeLano will soon be able to enjoy a mojito (or a caramel macchiato) more often: On Nov. 30 he’s retiring after 31 years as the fair’s horticulturist.

In a press release, Fairplex CEO Walter Marquez says DeLano’s love for the fair is as great as his passion for plants, enthusing: “He is like a walking encyclopedia!”

“He has an incredible wealth of knowledge on agriculture/horticulture,” says fair spokeswoman Renee Hernandez. “He has been such an important part of Fairplex and the Fair. I can’t imagine us without him.”

Don DeLano walks past rows of exotic mints in Fairplex’s The Farm. DeLano helped dream up and create the 5-acre urban farm in 2014. It’s the site of activities during the L.A. County Fair and field trips during the school year. (Photo by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

I met DeLano in May when I wrote about the return of animal competition and judging to the L.A. County Fair after 15 years. DeLano was among the few links to the earlier program. As he told me then: “It’s been challenging putting back together what was taken apart.”

When we meet Monday morning, the pony-tailed DeLano is wearing a red T-shirt with the slogan “Let the Beet Drop.” He’s preparing tiny paper cups of seeds for an elementary school field trip the next day.

The kids would get a short tour of the grounds, pet some animals, dig a row of dirt and, if their attention spans could survive the possible sighting of worms, plant seeds and then “harvest” tiny plants from a different class’s field trip a few weeks ago. Ah, the circle of life.

Visits like this are part of Fairplex’s educational mission, which continues year-round.

“We want to promote healthy eating and expand people’s idea of what is locally available,” DeLano tells me. Children may discover they like fruits or veggies. Adults who take home seeds or small plants may learn they can grow things.

“I love interacting with people,” DeLano says. “The look on someone’s face when their plant has roots! They get so excited: ‘My husband says I have a green thumb.’ Something so simple can make someone so happy.”

The fair’s shift from September to May has not been universally embraced. DeLano says he was all for it after three years of high temperatures so uncomfortable that visitors stayed away until late afternoon. In May, people streamed through The Farm all day.

The return of animal judging went well, DeLano says, despite less-than-ideal preparation time due to COVID-19 uncertainty over whether the fair could take place at all.

DeLano had never been directly involved in the animal side of the fair but knew enough, and had enough contacts, to get its return organized. The 2023 fair, with plenty of notice to potential exhibitors, should have a larger pool of animals.

(Note to the literal-minded: The farm animals are not actually in a pool, although I like the imagery.)

Many fair officials had lost interest in the event’s agricultural roots in favor of what DeLano says was a more “commercial” mindset in administration and on the board of directors — “people who are no longer here,” he says with a chuckle.

He credits Miguel Santana, who was CEO from 2017-2021, with making a reconnection to the community and the return of agriculture a priority. Marquez, who took the reins in 2021, gets the importance of agriculture too, DeLano says.

As horticulturist, DeLano has overseen the fair’s year-round landscaping since his 1991 hiring. Fair officials say he came to know every tree, rose bush and shrub on its 487 acres.

Don DeLano touches a grapefruit mint, whose scent is reminiscent of the fruit, at Fairplex’s urban farm. (Photo by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

His contributions to the fairgrounds go back to 1973, when the Cal Poly Pomona botany student worked part-time in the Flower and Garden building and exhibited tropical fish in a once-popular section of Building 10. His first career was as a teacher at Cal Poly.

One notable assignment was helping the university accept a major donation of orchids from actor Raymond Burr. DeLano spent two summers in the 1980s cataloging, preparing and packing flowers at Burr’s estate near the Hollywood Bowl.

“Mr. Burr was fascinating, very friendly. A very imposing person, but very kind,” DeLano says. “Occasionally he would call my house to find me. My mother-in-law answered one time and went stone cold: ‘Uh, uh, uh.’ She was a big fan of his.”

DeLano is retiring at 69 due to various health issues that he says are interfering with his ability to get around and do the physical labor the job requires.

“It’s time for me to step down so someone more capable can do it,” DeLano says.

As we talk, I can see why he was described as a Renaissance man. At Glendale High — that’s where he met his wife of 69 years, Becky — he was a math and science whiz before a field botany class in junior college led him to horticulture and biology.

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Besides math and science puzzles, his interests include ferns, orchids, science fiction, modern art and avant-garde music.

“To give you an idea, I love Yoko Ono,” he volunteers.

Let the beet drop.

brIEfly

I was on the Claremont Home Tour on Sunday when who should I bump into but one of Chino Hills’ founding fathers. Ed Graham moved to that community before cityhood, was elected to its first City Council in 1991 and kept getting re-elected until retiring in 2017. What was the 34-year resident doing in Claremont? He and wife Denise bought a house and are moving in this weekend. It’s as if George and Martha Washington got tired of Mount Vernon and wanted a change. But welcome to them both.

David Allen writes Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, more to tire of. Email dallen@scng.com, phone 909-483-9339, like davidallencolumnist on Facebook and follow @davidallen909 on Twitter.