To the Fair We Go!

I love county fairs – always have, probably always will. Which is why myself, Chris, and my mom (who was visiting) headed off to the Montgomery County Fair on Monday afternoon.

As it turned out, it was a perfect day to go. The weather was warm but not hot, the fair wasn’t crowded, and there was a special on all-you-can-ride wristbands for $15. Our inner children couldn’t resist, so we indulged in the wristbands. From the cousin of the Great Escape’s now-defunct Rotor to an awesome but barf-o-rama ride that spun you every which way, we definitely got our money’s worth. We even went in all of the fun-houses, which were hilariously bad and not nearly as exciting as the movie Grease had been telling me all these years. In another complete abandonment of practicality, we also ate deep-fried oreos.

But ridiculous rides and food isn’t why I’m writing about the County Fair. Rather, it’s the fact that the County Fair highlights and celebrates areas of society that rarely get their due.

First and foremost is the agricultural aspect of any good County Fair. After all, without the agriculture, it’s just a carnival. The Montgomery County Fair has a particularly strong agricultural presence because of the Montgomery County Agricultural Reserve, a 70,000 acre section of the county devoted to farming. The area is protected through the transfer of development rights and easement purchases, bolstering the County’s current output and strengthening its future capabilities. Most of these are family farms, with a prominent number of dairy and meat producers in particular.

At the fair, there were rows and rows of barns dedicated to cows, pigs, goats, chickens, and even rabbits. An exchange between my mom and a little boy tending his family’s pigs perfectly illustrated the family nature of the event. When my mom asked him if his family raised any other animals, he said, “Some cows…and grandpa!”

Although some of the animals were from professional farms, many were showcases for up-and-coming farmers – 4H participants. In fact, the founders of the Fair created it all the way back in 1945 for 4H members to display their prize livestock, produce, and home economics projects. This tradition certainly continues, with one very enthusiastic 8-year-old showing us her prize-winning skirt, cake, and salad. (Lest one think the competition is sexist, her brother had an entry in the salad/entrée category as well.) I never had a 4H presence in my school, but I hope that our kids have the opportunity to participate. I’m a huge supporter of school gardens and think that the earlier that kids can learn to grow food for themselves, the better. Organizations like 4H allow kids to learn from and teach each other, an essential skill in and of itself.

Beyond the current and future professional farmers, the Fair also provides an outlet for amateur gardeners. The Farm & Garden & Flower competition gave prizes for several feats, including largest tomato, best looking/most uniform produce, and a category that is best described for “most odd-looking.” That last contest required the entrant to include a caption describing what he or she believed the produce resembled.

Honestly, I think our tomatoes could have competed.

There was even a Honey and Beeswax category for beekeepers that included best-looking honeycomb. For those who were just starting out, the Montgomery County Master Gardeners had a lovely demonstration garden and information table. I went to the table expecting to learn something and instead ended up singing the praises of permaculture practices to them!

Secondly, the County Fair provides a venue for sharing important skills that most people don’t know are even practiced anymore. In the “Old Timers” section, blacksmiths demonstrated right before our eyes how they use bellows and fire to produce useful items. One of them commented, “If I need a tool, I just make it.”

Nearby, woodworkers created beautiful furniture and toys. In a building devoted to the category once called “Home Economics,” huge multicolored quilts shared space with home-canned jams and hand-spun yarn. Although most people do these hobbies for fun, these skills may also be useful in shifting to a less fossil-fuel intense economy. As we learn to rely more on each other and less on oil, old-time skills such as these will become very important to pass on to future generations. The can-do spirit that inherently comes with any hobby requiring so much trial and error will also come in very handy.

Thirdly, County Fairs provide an important venue for essential community groups to generate public interest. Every city and town relies on dedicated public servants in the fire department, police department, schools and other institutions, whether they are professionals or volunteers. In turn, these organizations require citizens’ support in the form of time, energy, and money. The County Fair, with its high energy atmosphere, can help engage people in a way that few other events can. At our fair, we watched a Jaws of Life demonstration by the Montgomery County Fire Department. In it, they removed all four doors and the roof from a junker vehicle, showing the type of work they do every day. The audience was entertained and reminded of how important it is to support these essential services that are becoming more and more undervalued in today’s economy.

That is a car without a roof. This took a surprisingly long time to do.

Honestly, we had an awesome time at the County Fair and it seemed like many people around us did as well. Perhaps some of them knew quite a bit about agriculture and didn’t learn much. But I hope and believe that some people did have a spark of interest lighted or an existing flame fanned a bit more. Perhaps some kid who never heard of 4H will join the local chapter and raise chickens. Perhaps a suburban homeowner will start a vegetable garden in his or her yard. Or maybe a teenager will decide to take up spinning and weaving. It’s a cheesy slogan, but I agree that the Montgomery County Fair and its cousins across the country are “Udderly Terrific.”

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5 Responses to To the Fair We Go!

  1. My daughter wants to have chickens because of seeing them at a fair and finding out two of her acquaintances have chickens in their back yard. (I’m not sure she’s ready for the commitment yet.)

    I love going to county fairs/state fairs!

    • Chickens can be quite a commitment, although there’s a lot of equipment out there these days to help newbie enthusiasts. Perhaps she could start with something less demanding though? Rabbits seem pretty low-maintenance.

  2. Gordon Clark says:

    Great piece, Shannon! Although in one fact check, I believe Montgomery County’s Ag Reserve is 90,000 acres, not 70,000. And it still does grow a relative dearth of table crops – or any other kind – consumed by county residents… definitely something we need to work on.

    Thanks again for writing about your experience. Wish I had tried the deep fried Oreos when I was there!

  3. Pingback: Sew It, Grow It, Show It – Sell It, Teach It? « Will Bike for Change (or Pie!)

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