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Our opening-day guide to the NC State Fair

Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler spent most of his annual pre-State Fair news conference this week talking about safety, in the wake of last year’s Vortex ride accident and the lawsuit that sought to overturn the fair’s long-standing ban on firearms.

Now that a judge has preserved the ban, at least for this year, Troxler is hoping that the fair’s traditional formula of corndogs, farm animals and midway rides will bring people in, as it has for decades.

“I want to refocus on what the State Fair is,” he said. “It is about being safe, but it’s about families having fun and enjoying themselves.”

The 11-day event opens Thursday afternoon at 3. In the morning, Troxler, Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry (whose employees inspect the rides), Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison and others will hold another news conference to talk about measures to keep people safe.

Here’s our opening-day guide to this year’s fair:

Food and ride finder: For many of us, wandering the fairgrounds is a big part of the fun. But if you want a turkey leg and you want it now, the State Fair website offers a searchable “food and ride finder” that let’s you hunt down various attractions online. It’s not perfect. “Turkey legs” turn up a dozen vendors, but “roller coaster” doesn’t produce anything.

Pumpkins: Expect more and bigger pumpkins this year. For the first time, the State Fair’s giant pumpkin contest is sanctioned by the The Great Pumpkin Commonwealth, the NASCAR of pumpkin competitions. That means more interest from elite growers and, for the first time, entries from outside North Carolina. Look for the winners in the Expo Center.

Horseback riding: Along with a special lineup of horse shows to celebrate the Year of the Horse, the N.C. Horse Council will offer free five-minute horseback riding lessons to kids and adults who want to see what being in a saddle feels like. “It’s not a pony ride,” says Sue Gray, the council’s executive director. “It is truly with an instructor who can give them that first lesson.” In the Hunt Horse Complex on Monday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Wednesday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Bread: If fried Twinkies aren’t your thing, stop by the La Farm Bakery food truck, near Gate 1, where baker and Paris native Lionel Vatinet will introduce a Piedmont sourdough bread made with flour grown and milled in North Carolina and served with pimento cheese or BLT. The trucks’ oven will be baking white chocolate mini baguettes as well. “Hopefully we are going to be the food find of the fair,” Vatinet said in his unmistakably French accent.

Military Appreciation Day: It’s Wednesday, when active-duty service members, reservists, retirees, National Guard members and their dependents pay $5 at the gate. There will be an appreciation day parade at 11 a.m., followed by a Salute to the Troops at noon and performances by the 440th Army Band at 12:30, 3 and 5 p.m. at the Waterfall Stage. And all during the fair, the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources has a special exhibit on the state’s involvement in World War I in Dorton Arena.

Hunger relief: Saturdays are the busiest days at the fair, but in recent years, the next busiest day has been the second Thursday. That’s Food Lion Hunger Relief Day, when five cans of food gets you a free admission ticket. Last year, Hunger Relief Day generated 243,000 pounds of food for the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina.

Getting there: If the traffic and parking seem daunting, try taking the bus or train. CAT, DATA, Triangle Transit and Amtrak all offer alternative ways to the fair. You can learn about all of them here:

Concerts: As of late Wednesday, tickets were still available for all but one of the evening shows at Dorton Arena. All concerts begin at 7:30 p.m., with doors opening at 6:30 p.m. Here’s a schedule:

• Thursday: Vanilla Ice, $5

• Friday: Tamela Mann, $10

• Saturday: Clay Walker, $12

• Sunday: Parmalee, $10

• Monday: Love and Theft, $10

• Tuesday: James Gregory, $5

• Wednesday: Brandy Clark, $5

• Oct. 23: McClain including China Anne McClain with special guest Before you Exit, $10

• Oct. 24: Newsboys (SOLD OUT)

• Oct. 25: Trace Adkins, $17

• Oct. 26: Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, $15