Last week, accompanied by an incredibly patient 3-year old, I set out to enter some photos in the our local County Fair. Each year, I try to enter something in the fair, usually photos or baked goods. I enter the fair for a few reasons. First, I enjoy seeing how my photos stack up against other amateurs. I think it is a good measure of how much my skills have improved during the previous year and I enjoy getting constructive feedback from the judges on how to better my work. It helps me grow as a photographer and person to take the risk and put that piece of my soul out there for others to judge.
Second, entering something in the county fair is just what you do in August. I’ve been entering stuff, from art projects and horses to banana bread and market hogs since elementary school. Taking an evening to walk through the exhibit hall to see how my entries fared, seeing all the different breeds of livestock in the barns and enjoying the talents of my community is as much a tradition for me during summer as eating ice cream, camping or grilling outside. It’s just what you do.
And finally, I enter my work to do my part to continue the tradition of county fairs, because I believe in my heart that county fairs, and other community traditions, still matter.
The first American fair was started by a New England farmer named Elkanah Watson. Watson organized the Berkshire Agricultural Society and Cattle Show in Pittsfield, Mass., in 1811. According to the International Association of Fairs and Exhibitions, the cattle show was a competition with prize money paid for the best exhibits of oxen, cattle, swine and sheep.
Watson worked to help other communities organize their own agricultural societies and their respective shows (fairs). The nineteenth century closed with almost every state and province having one or more agricultural fair or exhibition. Those early fairs were an opportunity for rural families to see the latest agricultural technologies, meet up with neighbors and take a break from farming to enjoy the summer. Today, more than 3,000 fairs are held in North America each year.
Over time, other elements like rodeos, demolition derbies, carnivals and concerts have become part of the county fair tradition. But at the heart of today’s fair are still those core elements fairs were founded on…competition for the best agricultural and domestic products of the county, and a chance for the community to come together, share and learn.
County fairs are important because of what they do for kids. County fair is a chance for 4-H and FFA members and other kids to exhibit the projects they have worked on all summer, whether it’s a model rocket or a market sheep. By choosing a project and bringing it to fruition in time for fair, these kids develop life skills like time management, organization, responsibility and public speaking, not to mention confidence and poise. They are also learning tangible skills that might help them in a trade or career later in life – wood-working, welding, cake decorating, photography, gardening, art, sewing, cooking, the list goes on. Not many other “summer” activities can offer so much to so many.
County Fairs still matter because they are a chance to advocate for agriculture. Fairs offer a very tangible way for consumers to get out of the city and supermarkets and see where their food comes from. Fair visitors can still see, touch, taste and smell agriculture. They can see a market steer on the hoof and recognize that beef isn’t inherently evil or raised only by nameless and faceless corporations. Visitors can view chickens that are living, breathing birds with feathers and beaks and personality, not just some white frozen lump in a bag. And visitors can see beautiful fruits and vegetables and crops lined up for display and learn that all of it was grown right in their own backyard. And maybe, just maybe, those same visitors will think twice before buying into extremist views on production agriculture by realizing agriculture isn’t some global industry, but local producers raising a local product that feeds everyone’s families.
And County Fairs still matter because they bring the community together. County Fairs create jobs, support rural economic development and promote local commerce. People gather together in a common spirit to discuss livestock, pies or rodeo. They slap each other on the back to celebrate a purple ribbon, commiserate together on the heat and the flies and share life events over an over-priced corn dog. It’s community camaderie at it’s finest.
County fairs certainly aren’t perfect, and can be laden with local politics. There will always be questionable judges, sneaks and sore losers. I know didn’t always win the prize I wanted, or walk away with the color of ribbon I thought I deserved. But I am, we are, always better for the experience.
Together, the ribbons and pageantry and fried foods and friendship make up something simple and beautiful at its core. Fairs are a celebration of the most basic parts of our heritage – of getting your hands dirty, trial-by-error, doing it yourself and learning from your mistakes. They are integral to the well-being of our culture and define who we are and where we come from.
County Fairs still matter.