Sheryl Barbich has heard about every nut pun/joke/play-on-words imaginable and, she regrets to note, most have come from her own lips. The co-founder of Kern County's inaugural Nut Festival can hardly string together two consecutive sentences without some sort of crack. At this point, she isn't even aware she's doing it.
But pistachios, almonds and walnuts have consumed her life for more than a year now as she and a couple of dozen other community boosters have set out to put on an event so ambitious in scope, size and sheer pizzazz that it is rivaled in these parts only by the venerable Kern County Fair.
"I'm about drained of nut puns," said Barbich, exhaustion obvious in her voice during a phone conversation Tuesday afternoon.
"I've been doing it since a year ago February, and I can't even talk without doing one."
But the nut festival -- five years in gestation -- will finally emerge from its shell Saturday at the Kern County Museum. And, on paper at least, it sounds pretty amazing:
* The event, whose main focus is food and beverages, will feature dozens of local restaurants and nonprofits selling inventive nut-centric creations from beer to haggis; several respected professional chefs, like Jeramy Brown from Valentien, will do live cooking demonstrations, and there's a cookoff for amateur chefs.
* The family-fun quotient has been turned up to 10, with tons of ways to wear out the kids -- bounce houses, pony rides, a train, cake walks, games and more. But the play is not restricted to the under-18 crowd: The Running of the Nuts race, which kicks off the action at 8 a.m., is just one of many adult-skewing contests and games.
* Several top Bakersfield bands have been booked to provide music on a half-dozen stages scattered throughout the museum and neighboring Stramler Park, where much activity will take place, after organizers long ago figured out that the museum's 16 acres would most certainly not be enough to contain so many vendors, games, entertainers, demonstrations and visitors.
Roger Perez, executive director of the museum since November, has been all about nuts pretty much his entire seven-month tenure at the Chester Avenue landmark.
"This is the biggest thing the museum has ever done," Perez said.
Why not grapes or carrots?
Kern County agriculture topped $5 billion in gross production value in 2011, the last year for which figures are available (the report for 2012 will be released later this month). There's no doubt that nuts -- particularly almonds, the No. 2 crop -- play a big part in making the county an agricultural powerhouse, but what about other star performers like milk, grapes, citrus and carrots?
"We could have done table grapes," conceded co-organizer Beth Pandol. "But there are a small number of growers who grow table grapes. Nuts -- almonds and pistachios -- continue to be planted everywhere in Kern. Plus, the word 'nut' lends itself to lots of fun ideas."
Barbich noted that the many non-edible connotations the word nut evokes presented something of a risk.
"Some people say, 'They're going to think we're nuts in Bakersfield.' And I'm like, good!"
Though Bakersfieldians typically are defiant in the face of the superior attitudes directed our way by outsiders, that's not the case here. One of the main reasons for the nut festival is to play nice with out-of-towners, enticing them to stay at our hotels, eat in our restaurants, gas up at our minimarts and generally give our economy a nice little kiss on the cheek. To that end, organizers have been advertising the festival in select markets around the state, thanks to a board of trade grant aimed at increasing tourism.
But the first year? That's mostly for locals, Barbich said, which is reflected in the reasonable admission prices and other costs to the public.
"We're selling bottled water for a dollar," Barbich noted. "We probably could have raised those prices but we wanted people to experience it first. Are we going to make money? Yes. Do I know how much? No. As I see the rental quotes come in and you've got trash, insurance, extra power -- you're going, 'Oh, man, this is bigger than I thought.'"
The festival has raised $180,000 in cash donations, and will keep all of the gate proceeds, plus 20 percent of the take from nonprofits and 25 percent from commercial vendors. The money will go to the foundation that runs the county-owned museum, and at least a portion will go into the kitty for next year's festival. Speaking of 2014, organizers are keeping a binder of some of the suggestions that were discarded for the kickoff event, like hosting a soiree for VIPs the Friday night before and booking a celebrity chef for sheer drawing power.
"There were so many ideas," Barbich said. "We were going to get (Food Network star) Guy Fieri and pay him $25,000 and we're like, 'We can do that.' And then it was $125,000 and first-class airfare, etc., and we're like, 'No thanks.' But then we said, for the first year, let's focus on making it a great day."
One casualty next year may be the walnut -- an essential component in any decent sundae or chocolate-chip cookie but small potatoes in the pantheon of Kern nut crops.
"As we were looking for support from pistachio and almond growers and related providers, they have been extremely supportive and excited," Barbich said.
"But walnuts? We couldn't find anybody. The California Walnut Commission wouldn't even return a phone call. So pecans may replace walnuts next year."
Barbich believes Bakersfield is ready to support a festival of the size and caliber of events like the Gilroy Garlic Festival and Savor the Central Coast, which draw visitors from all over the state.
"If the economy hadn't turned on us in 2008, we might have tried it then. Bakersfield is growing and one of the things that came up is that one of the strengths of our community is a quirky sophistication. The more people that come here, they bring diverse life experiences into the community. I don't think we're losing our culture; we're just adding on to it."