It’s a foul year for fairs: Around the United States, states and counties have canceled these unique expressions of American culture, due to concern about COVID-19 and the widespread bans on public gatherings.
Millions of people are missing funnel cakes and Ferris wheels. The biggest state fair of all, in Texas, was supposed to open on Sept. 25, but of course it’s shuttered.
Too often, it can take losing something to appreciate what you had in the first place, and so this is a good moment to remember that fairs are about more than tractor pulls in front of grandstands and ring-toss games on the midway. They are in fact essential to farming.
Today, I’m a dairy farmer in Vermont—but without fairs, I might not be a farmer at all.
Growing up in Massachusetts, I wasn’t a farm kid. My dad was a minister and my mom was a nurse. Agriculture wasn’t in my future the way it is for people who are born into farm families.
Yet we lived in a farming community, and as my older siblings watched their friends prepare calves for the local fairs, they got caught up in the excitement and wanted to join in. Soon after, as the tag-along little sister, so did I.
Lots of children want bikes for their birthdays, but we wanted calves. We kept them at the farm of a friend who attended our church and dreamed of winning prizes at the fair.
This is exactly what the founding father of fairs envisioned more than two centuries ago. In Berkshire County of western Massachusetts, Elkanah Watson organized in 1811 what he called a “cattle show,” but what was, in its fundamentals, America’s first county fair. Within a few years, counties across New England had started their own fairs and an American institution was born.
Today, the International Association of Fairs & Expositions counts more than 2,000 fairs in North America—at least during a normal year.
Watson’s idea built upon earlier events that were more like open-air markets that also featured dancing and singing—but at its center was a competition, awarding prizes for the best crops and biggest animals. This pursuit of excellence appealed to the human instinct of self-improvement. It also encouraged neighbors to share information and knowledge. These farmer-to-farmer exchanges allowed the best agricultural practices to spread.
Fairs mean better farming.
I see how this works in my own community. The local fair brings everybody together. We greet old friends and meet people we might not otherwise encounter.
The fair also gives us a chance to talk to non-farmers, who can learn about agriculture from actual food producers. Something as simple as a birthing tent, where visitors can view first-hand the birth of a calf, allows us to demonstrate that farmers care deeply about the health and welfare of their animals, in contrast to what people might hear from the mass media and other sources.
My own kids started to show Jersey calves last year. They loved it, just as I did when I was a girl. Watching them with the eyes of a mother, I see how this hands-on experience educates, builds confidence, and encourages thinking about a future in agriculture. Without fairs, the challenge of persuading young people to become farmers would be even more difficult.
The decision earlier this year to cancel our county fair was predictable but also heartbreaking. Knowing the value of it, though, our tight-knit community managed last month to put on a small event that sharply limited spectators, in compliance with state rules, but allowed the kids a chance to shine. It took the efforts of volunteers and the generosity of local businesses, plus a lot of hard work.
Amid the losses of 2020—from the deaths and suffering from the coronavirus to the failure of businesses and the shedding of jobs due to the lockdowns—the cancellation of fairs may seem like a minor problem.
Yet these events represent the biggest and best opportunity for farmers to learn from each other, teach the non-farming public about what we do, and recruit a new generation of food producers.
We need them back and better than ever in 2021.
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