Fair is fertile ground
When state and county fairs originated more than a century and a half ago, their aim was to show farmers and their families better ways of living and improved methods of agriculture.
Wouldn't our ancestors be amazed that fairs today typically showcase traditional crafts, skills and husbandry rarely used by the majority of nonfarm Americans?
During the first century of state fairs, no one would have bothered to teach nonfarm children or adults about agricultural practices and skills. Today, hands-on exhibits and tours are emerging to connect urban Americans with their farm heritage.
Little Hands on the Farm began at the Indiana State Fair in 2001, and it migrated to Minnesota in 2003. Today the popular exhibit is found at state fairs from Iowa to Texas.
At this free miniature exhibit, kids ages two to 10 wear work aprons and seed corn caps as they pretend to plant seeds, to milk cows, and to harvest crops.
The kids collect goods to sell at the farmers market, and they spend their earnings at the Cub Foods Grocery Store. A free Make 'n' Take area featuring ag-based activities is part of the exhibit, thanks to Ag in the Classroom, land-grant universities, and agribusiness sponsors.
Barn Tours are available at many state fairs and livestock shows in the U.S., Canada, and Australia. The 50-minute livestock barn tours promote ag literacy in an entertaining way.
The On the Farm Game Show is a Jeopardy-like ag trivia contest that draws upon Barn Tour information. Contestants' buzzers are equipped with amusing farm animal sounds.
The Miracle of Life birthing tent, born more than a dozen years ago, attracts throngs of families fascinated by live animals giving birth. A Michigan Farm Bureau Web cam updates images at www.michiganfarmbureau.com/webcam.
Such efforts seem to perpetuate an outdated ag image. After all, most farm kids today don't experience much ag diversity.
On our farm, we have hogs, three horses, and for the past eight years, goats. My husband's family raises sheep and cattle.
Several years ago, we took our daughter, Alexa, to the dairy barn at the Iowa State Fair so she could have the experience of milking a cow.
But today I live within a few miles of a farm that markets 60 acres of vegetables. On my way to work, I pass a community-supported agriculture farm supplying 130 members. Farmers markets and pick-your-owns are common.
Thanks to the growing local food movement, more Americans are becoming reacquainted with farm-fresh vegetables and fruits, specialty meats, and grass-fed dairy products.
Exhibits, tours, and games don't address critical questions about cloning, farm programs, or land use. But they do help to educate rural and urban youth about community-based food systems.
The majority of 4-H kids showing livestock at fairs no longer plan to earn livelihoods in agriculture. Adding new 4-H fair classes for goats, pastured poultry, or organic produce could attract new interest.