Navigating County Fair Season

Blue ribbons and food are ample rewards for a summer’s work.

Can the local farm fair compete for attention in an era of Xbox games and 3-D movies? The answer for farm families and town folk is a resounding “Yes!”

“I’m sure you’ll see the 4-H kids with their iPhones, texting,” said Jim Grant, fair authority secretary with the Jefferson County Fair in Pennsylvania. But those kids definitely are at the fairgrounds. “Fairs are especially popular with the 4-H programs,” he said.

“Fairs historically are a family event,” said Andy Imperati, general manager for the Dutchess County Fair in New York. “Kids are into the fair scene if it’s a family event.” However, the 18- to 22-year demographic is noticeable by its absence, off doing its own thing.

“The fair is a whole different thing,” said Bruce Shallcross, general manager of the Three County fair which runs Sept. 2-5 in Northampton, Massachusetts. “We still have a very strong 4-H contingent.”

In fact, last year the youth dairy show had 200 cows, and a strong turnout is anticipated for this year, too.

“We have 2,000 young people actively participating,” said Mike Froehlich, general manager of the York Fair in York, Pennsylvania. That includes Future Farmers of America (FFA), 4-H and those in the marching band competition.

“The young crowd is getting involved in art and other nonlivestock areas,” Froehlich added, noting that bodes well for future fairs.

Adults participate, too. For some, the fair represents a reward for a silo-full of fine-chopped silage and a good third-cutting of hay in the barn. Some compete in tractor pulls. For others, it is a time of tension and worried last-minute touches as 4-H animals are paraded before judges and decisions are made by those judging the quality of honey or tastiness of pies.

OK – so a stomach-wrenching ride on the Tilt-A-Whirl or Himalayan might not be for everyone. But cotton candy and a chance to look at livestock ranging from lambs to chickens are sure to thrill everyone.

Educational affair

Fairs are educational, too. At the Ephrata Fair in Ephrata, Pennsylvania, the local Cloister FFA classes will give livestock demonstrations at different stations. The 98th running of the fair is Sept. 20-24.

The Dutchess County Fair, which runs Aug. 23-28, is another one of the grand events of summer. Held in Rhinebeck, about 90 miles north of New York City, the fair will see 400,000 visitors come to its 162 acres. This fair traces its roots back 170 years and claims to be the second oldest in the U.S.

“Our geographic location gives us the opportunity to educate folks from the city about where food comes from,” Imperati said.

New this year will be the fair’s MOO-U – a barn tour that will lead visitors around ag hill and discuss how much milk a cow produces or how old a hen must be to lay eggs.

On the infield will be a mock farm that will let the 3- to 10-year-old group see how food is grown and sold. The kids can dig up mock potatoes from a sandbox, shear a wooden (and woolen) sheep or pick apples from a plywood tree. They then will take their crop to a warehouse where they will sell it for funny money. That money will buy them a half-pint of milk or bag of carrot sticks. “The idea,” Imperati said, “is to show them that food doesn’t just appear on grocery shelves.”

A taste of history

Pennsylvania’s York County Fair bills itself as the oldest nationwide, calling itself “America’s First Fair.” Last year, the York Fair celebrated 250 years since the first York Fair in 1765. “We like to say this year we are starting on our second 250,” Froehlich said. The York Fair has grown steadily. In 1853 a group of forward-thinking York County ag leaders teamed up to form the York County Agricultural Society. The society’s goal was to make the county fair a mind-blowing three-day event.

About 10 years after the Civil War, the York County Ag Society decided its fair had once again outgrown its grounds. So the ag leaders purchased land and moved the event to the 73-acre site that was eventually expanded to become the current York Fair/York Expo Center property.

In 1997, the fair expanded its schedule to become a 10-day event that spans two full weekends. It now opens the first Friday after Labor Day and closes on Sunday of the second weekend.

The Franklin County Fair in Greenfield, Massachusetts, is run by the County Agriculture Society. The event, Sept. 8-11, is in its 168th year.

At any fair, visitor safety is paramount. In Ephrata, the Farmers Day Association engages police, EMS, guards and traffic directors to assure everyone has a good and safe time. Billing itself as “the largest Street Fair in Pennsylvania,” the event has been a significant part of the local community history for almost a century, showing off agricultural products and exhibits, as well as giving kids fun rides on the Midway.

The Three County Fair, run by the Hampshire, Franklin and Hampden Agricultural Societies, claims to be the oldest continuously operated agricultural fair still running in the U.S. “Every fair has a claim to fame,” said Shallcross. “We are the oldest ag fair.” This year’s event is the 199th for the Three County Fair. The Three County Fair still seeks to meet its goal of agricultural promotion, education, and science through exhibitions, displays, competitions, and demonstrations.

At almost any county or local fair, area 4-H and FFA members raise, groom and show a variety of livestock including swine, beef, goats, lambs, rabbits and dairy beef. These young people put enormous amounts of time and effort into raising and caring for these quality animals.

There is more to a fair than just blue ribbons. The Dutchess County Fair awards an annual $8,000 scholarship to a local student enrolled in college. The New York State Association of Agricultural Fairs and the New York State Showpeople’s Association also sponsors many scholarships. Sometimes, Imperati said, they will make additional $500 or $1,000 awards to students who are long-time exhibitors.

In addition, fair queens are chosen. At the York Fair, for example, contestants must be a female, U.S. citizen who is either a resident of York County, attending a school in York County, or is a member of an FFA Chapter or regularly organized 4-H Club within the county. At many county fairs, an opening day highlight is the royalty pageant. At others, it is the grand finale of the event.

Froehlich sees growth in attendance by the millennial generation. He points to the number of young families and strollers visiting York Fair’s Kiddie Land. This year they will have a straw bale maze for the 3- to 6-year-old set and a stingray encounter (minus barbs). “If Kiddie Land is any indication, the future is good,” Froehlich said.

The entertainment at fairs ranges from favorite local bands to national acts like Alabama and ventriloquist Jeff Dunham, both of whom will appear at the York County Fair.

But folks still flock to attractions like Goat Mountain to feed and laugh about the goats climbing over bales or to the fair’s birthing education area where cattle, sheep and hogs drop their young. “This is our fifth year with that and it is very successful,” Froehlich said. “We are always trying to find new ways to educate the public about agriculture.”

Some fairs, like Jefferson County’s, limit performances to local groups and bands. Although their big covered seating pavilion draws interest from travelling groups, they choose to limit performances to community fiddlers and queen contests.

For the first time, Relay for Life will offer two nights of bingo as a fundraiser at the Jefferson Fair.

There is entertainment and tension of another type in the judging tents. Just how sweet is that silage put up a week or two ago? Is that third-cutting alfalfa as leafy and protein-packed as it might be?

It is not just the future farmers who participate. Adults show everything from honey to hay, tomatoes to tobacco and hope for ribbons in their class. And beware Mom’s dismay if “that woman” from across the county edges her out again in the quilting contest or for the tastiest apple pie.

Personal experience with judging at several fairs lets this writer assure everyone that the judges do their level best to be fair to every competitor. If there is one true winner, it is the judge who gets to sample the dozen best pies the county has to offer. However, taste and an eye for animal conformation do vary from judge to judge and year to year. Just be sure that those show pigs do not explode in talcum powder when the judge pats their flanks. And don’t even bother to submit a hay show entry with shattered leaves or caramelizing.

Every fair provides plenty of room for livestock. The Three County Fair, for example, has 540 stalls available in a variety of barns, including the 300 stalls constructed in 2010-11 as part of the fair’s expansion.

Shallcross said that livestock at fairs tends to circle from cows to sheep and around again for no apparent reason. However, the animal judging always is popular.

If it is an objective winner you seek, look to the horse and tractor pulls.

Pennsylvania Opens Fairs to Poultry

After a year-long hiatus on poultry exhibits, Pennsylvania has lifted its ban on poultry shows. Imposed in May 2015, the ban was put in place as a precaution to protect Pennsylvania’s $13 billion poultry industry against the threat of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) virus.

The ban against what is commonly called bird flu was lifted effective June 1, 2016. All of the state’s 109 county fairs and the 2017 Farm Show will be able to show poultry. Now kids can see peeps hatch!

The state has instituted a 30-day testing protocol for entering poultry exhibits at county fairs. Previously, birds had to test negative for Avian Influenza six months prior to the exhibit date. Now, per the fair guidance, poultry must be tested within the 30 days prior to the opening date of the exhibition. The interstate quarantine remains in effect.

Tractor pulls

While many Northeastern fairs predate John Deere, tractor pulls remain an exciting part of the fair-going experience. The Jefferson County, Pennsylvania, fair roars into action each July with its ATV Racing Extravaganza, followed by the 4-by-4 Gas/Diesel Truck and Tractor Pull. Next day, fairgoers to the event in Brockway, just off I-80, can enjoy the Pennsylvania Posse Semi-Trucks and super farm tractor pull.

“We’ll have the full-pull truck and tractor pulls on two nights this year,” Grant said. The antique tractor pulls have been suspended this year. “The pulls last too long,” Grant said. Look for the antique competition to be back in 2017, however.

If it’s a bang-up time you want, Shallcross noted that Three County will have a school bus demolition derby on Labor Day. That will complement the demo-cross offered as well.

Supporting the fair

Some fairs offer free admission; others require a ticket. No matter where the fair, plan on spending some money. Bidding and buying show animals is a great way to support our local 4-H and FFA youth and the future of agriculture.

Buying funnel cakes, milkshakes and corn dogs is another aspect of the fair that everyone loves.

Fairs like Ephrata’s allow people to bid on livestock but take possession of the animal. Instead, a buyback price is offered for all species.

Most fairs would agree with Three County Fair’s motto: “To promote agriculture, agricultural education and agricultural science in the Commonwealth.” To that end, Dutchess County Farm Bureau is working with the fair to supply 3-by-6 foot posters with farm facts.

No matter one’s reason for attending, fair time makes for a great day (or two) with friends and neighbors, sights and sounds.