Fair Play, Fair Work

Fair Play, Fair Work

Florida State Fair Executive Director Cheryl Flood Maintains Balance Between Education, Entertainment

by PAUL CATALA

For her entire life, Cheryl Flood has been involved in agriculture, from her rural upbringing near Lake Wales to her current role as executive director of the Florida State Fair in Tampa. 

And as a sixth-generation Floridian and Sarasota native whose farming roots originated in the Okeechobee area, Flood strives to keep the relevance and importance of the state’s agriculture in the forefront to fairgoers. 

Although for the majority of visitors to the Florida State Fair, highlights generally include rides, games and corn dogs, she makes sure there are educational kiosks, history exhibits and livestock competitions. But Flood wants to make sure those aspects get equal attention.

“Agriculture is important to me, it’s a passion, it’s a heritage, it’s a mission and most importantly it’s an educational opportunity,” Flood says, speaking from her office at the State Fairgrounds. 

“Florida is the backbone of our economy, and when everything else is cyclical, agriculture is always consistent. It’s vital that people understand where their food comes from and the fact that farmers and ranchers are working hard every single day to ensure that we have food on our table. America should never take their source of food for granted.”

That steadfast commitment to agricultural awareness and relevance has helped Flood rise from living and working the rural life on Kicco Ranch off State Road 60 east of Lake Wales to leading operations at one of the top 20 largest fairs in the United States. 

Flood ended up in her current position after former Agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam placed Flood — formerly the agricultural department’s director of external affairs — as interim executive director in March 2016 after the sudden resignation of then-Executive Director Chuck Pesano. By that September, Flood was hired to oversee the same fair she once showed cattle in during her teenage years. 

“This is my sixth state fair as the CEO-executive director. Most don’t know we plan not only for the annual state fair, but the Florida State Fair hosts over 200 events throughout the year on the property, so we stay busy year-round,” she says.

Flood gleaned management experience in Englewood, where her family had cattle. In fourth grade, the family moved to Okeechobee and by sixth grade, they had moved to Lake Wales and Kicco Ranch where she worked cattle with her father and was a member of the Future Farmers of America. 

After graduating from Frostproof High School in 1995 and the University of Florida in 1999 with a degree in agriculture, Flood became a legislative aid for Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, and worked in Tallahassee with former Agriculture Commissioners Charlie Bronson and Adam Putnam gaining experience working on state issues.

“Through my working for (Putnam) for many years, it allowed me to get a lot of experiences in government … all types of different issues. It was a great honor to work for him,” she says. 

In 2016, the Florida State Fair executive director position opened and Putnam asked Flood to run it for six months. But Flood says, “I just kind of fell in love with the job, and I’ve been here ever since.”

Flood says her love for agriculture and desire to nurture it as an industry has helped in her current position. She says she wants to inspire respect and knowledge of the state’s agriculture industry.

“Every job that I’ve held, I’ve been able to share my passion for agriculture. When I finally got to the state fair, it was really exciting. It was the platform that I felt like, with the industry coming together, we could really showcase what this industry is,” says Flood. 

From behind her desk, Flood is busy maintaining not only numbers but interest in and funding for the Florida State Fair, a “quasi-government” entity. The fairgrounds aren’t funded by taxes, but it’s self-funded at $23 million annually. Prior to the covid pandemic, there was a fair administrative staff of about 65 employees, which is down to about 35 now. 

During non-pandemic years, fair attendance ranges from 450,000 to 500,000; this year, Flood says it’s down more than 30 percent. 

“I want it to really be a destination for people to come host events here on the property by growing the fair along with the population and offering more and more for people to enjoy,” Flood says. 

She remains optimistic about her continued role there. As development continues to be a threat to Florida’s agricultural lands, she says she strives to keep the fair’s agricultural aspects packaged with the fun and entertainment.

“People think of Florida and Disney World and beaches and it is, but we also have a huge industry here that puts food on their tables every day,” she reflects. “I think we’ll struggle to continue being able to educate with so many people moving into the state every day.”