Fair Thee Well Come Summer

Sharon January 14th, 2010

It has been two weeks of agony.  Not for me, and not for Simon, who has a very mellow approach to this, but for Isaiah.  Isaiah is picking out his own chickens for the first time, and well, this is a difficult process for a six year old with a strong desire to do well.  The Murray McMurray catalog has been considered so many times it is now a tattered mass of paper.  After all, these chickens aren’t ordinary chickens – they are going to the fair.

Now most of you probably go to a fair somewhere or other once a year.  Most counties and regions have an agricultural fair or two, and lots of people take their kids to see the animals and go on the rides.  But going to the fair for an evening is rather different than taking your livestock to the fair – that’s a whole ‘nother thing.  And this year, we promised Isaiah and Simon that they could take their very own chickens.  Which means we have to order them early so they will be full grown by August, when we are off to the country fair for a week.

These chickens aren’t just about the fair, though the thought of a ribbon or two is heavy in my boys’ minds.  These will be their chickens, and the start of a small poultry business for Simon and Isaiah.  The two of them are entitled to all the profits of the eggs (although they have to track the feed and earn that too, although we’ll provide a modest subsidy), and can expand their flocks, or sell extra roosters to us for meat.  They will be in charge of records and tending the animals. 

But the very fact that we are making this partly about the fair is something of a big deal.  When you take your critters to the fair, you have to be at the fair several times a day to tend their needs, plus you also have to be there for judgings and such.  I expect that a week at the fair will be time consuming and expensive for us.  Thus far, we’ve never felt compelled to do it.

But there are a couple of compelling reasons to do it.  The first is that I’ve seen too many agricultural fairs dwindle into carnivals with a couple of animals and a few bits of handwork or jelly.  If people don’t participate in the fair, they become merely another carnival – and that’s not how they originated.  Instead, the fair was the one time each year when you exposed what you’ve been doing on your farm to others, exchanged ideas, and looked at your practices in clear comparison to your neighbors.  We’ve let so much of our agricultural knowledge and history disappear – participating in the fair is a way of holding on to something that matters.

The fair is where you look around you and discover things you never knew about.  Did you know that someone was raising mohair just a few miles away?  Had you met the other person with your breed of hens?  Wow, who knew that the world’s third rated sheepdog trainer is in your county?

The fair is also when you show accomplishments that otherwise exist only inside your home or barn.  At the fair you let other people taste your jam and show them the mittens you knit.  At the fair, the claims farmers make at the diner – that their hay is the best or their cows milk X lbs get tested, amid the general laughter when a culture of overstatement is occasionally exposed, or to general surprise when the woman who always says her hay is the worst wins the prize.

The fair draws on local knowledge for nostalgic purposes that may not be wholly nostalgic – at the fair, you realize just how many people still use draft animals, at least for showing, or know how to repair old steam equipment, blacksmith or make linen from flax. 

The fair is a heck of a lot of work.  I’m not wholly looking forward to it.  My boys are old enough to be gracious winners and losers, but just barely – if these chickens don’t perform well, I know that there will be private sobs and sorrows.  But I’m also planning one pair of knitted socks good enough to enter in, and some jams and jellies that I might enter.   Because being part of an agricultural tradition means an obligation to preserve it. 

So we’re on tenterhooks. Isaiah has until tomorrow to settle on his breed of chickens.  Simon looked through the catalog, stopped at the cochin bantams, picked his color and moved on.  Isaiah has been through Polish hens and Salmon Faverolles, Millefleurs and Red Laced Cornish.  We’ve weighed the merits in eggs and coloring, what judges might be looking for.  We’re definitely counting our chickens before they are even hatched.  But hey, it is the fair. 

Sharon

25 Responses to “Fair Thee Well Come Summer”

  1. Sarah says:

    Good luck to the chicken-raisers!

    My family were county-fair winners in gingerbread house construction for several years in a row, but that stopped once we all left for college.

  2. Susan says:

    You’ll have a great time, and whether the boys win or don’t, it will still be a wonderful memory they’ll look back on as adults.

    Depending on the craziness of my schedule I may volunteer at the fair next year; DH did this year and had a great time.

    And you’re right about the surprises — I had no idea there were angora rabbit people right here in my own county — and I never would have known, nor bought any, if we hadn’t gone to the fair.

  3. Claire says:

    To refer to the previous post, here is one disadvantage of living in an urban area: the county fair doesn’t even pretend to be about agriculture. It was totally about entertainment, including a military air show. And it wasn’t held last year; the county had no money for it.

    I haven’t been to the state fair yet – maybe this year, the Amtrak actually goes to the town where it’s held – but there is still some agricultural link there. Maybe I’ll see if the neighboring counties’ fairs have any agricultural link. Might be a good learning experience even without entering.

  4. Brad K. says:

    No votes for Khaki Campbell ducks – that are supposed to outlay many chickens, don’t require a duck pond, and are agile enough to be regularly used to train herding dogs? I guess Indian Runner ducks are also fast enough to challenge herd dogs, but I don’t recall that their eggs also taste like regular chicken eggs, or lay as prolifically.

    Are the boys going for good brooding breeds, or lax brooders (that aren’t as defensive about gathering eggs)?

  5. State Fair Blue Ribbon Winner says:

    As a recent State Fair participant (and winner!), I know they’ll have a great time. You are so right about the future of a fair and it’s purpose. I hope the entire family has fun amidst the work.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Good luck to Isaiah on choosing his chickens.

    Thanks for reminding me of the good points of the fair. We did go to the Steuben county fair a few years ago just to see the impressive collection of chickens displayed there. Usually though, we avoid the fair because of the distance, cost & the beer tent.

  7. sgl says:

    my ex-girlfriend grew up in tokyo with little direct exposure to agriculture. i went to a big (state?/county?) fair here in TX with her and one of her japanese friends. they greatly enjoyed seeing all the animals, watching the rodeo events, and seeing a type of people they didn’t normally meet.
    –sgl

  8. emeeathome says:

    I hope Isaiah doesn’t get the Salmon Faverolles. I have one and I cant work out why anyone ever started breeding them. They have feathered feet, so that when they run round in the wet or mud they get cold and clogged. And they have very stangely arranged feathers around their head/eyes, so that they cant see any prey approaching. The hen I have is rather stupid, but that might just be her.

    I love my Australorp. She is so beautiful she takes my breath away.

  9. I’ve never been to the fair as an adult because I just assumed it was a big carnival. But all of your points are so good they’ve got me thinking of checking it out this year. (Not showing, though — that sounds like a huge undertaking! But I’ll be reading avidly to see how it goes for you.)

  10. Laurie in MN says:

    Got to go to the State Fair this last year — it’s just across the river in St. Paul, and I actually drive past the grounds several times a year. Honestly? I think I need to hunt up a good county fair! Our state fair is so very much about FOOD and EATING, and “oh, my god! What did you EAT at the FAIR?!”. And most of the food? Not so great, really. “Anything you can think of on a stick” pretty much sums it up. Still, we managed to sample some good stuff (gelato!) and not overstuff ourselves.

    I could hang out in the animal barns almost all day, though. :) The chickens were closed when we were there, the sheep all coated up (obviously there was a show some time soon), and the goats weren’t there during the week. :( I got some quality time with a very friendly Vanner (Gypsy) horse, though, and got to talk fiber with the lone representative Alpaca person there. (And got to fondle the raw fiber, and pet the yarn. Also got to feel raw wool and take a bit home. Cool!) I’ve always liked hanging out where they warm the horses up before the shows, too. I also spend a bunch of time in the Creative Activities building — where the needleworkers and knitters have their stuff! I don’t think anyone but the judges get to taste the baked goods/jams and jellies, though. Which seems like a bit of a bummer!

    My husband spends his day playing with the Alumni marching band at the University building, eating, and following me around. Not his favorite day, actually. So maybe we’ll have to see what the county fairs are like this year….

    Good luck to the boys!

  11. I greatly enjoyed showing animals at our county and state fairs when I was growing up. I mainly showed chickens, so I know how exciting it is, and also how much work it it. Careful with the feather-footed breeds- those feet and legs get dirty really quickly, and the feathers get damaged easily if their pen is at all muddy. Something to think about, they are beautiful, but they do take a little extra consideration.

    Also, depending on how competitive your local fair is, you might consider buying chickens from a breeder, rather than a major hatchery, as their birds will likely be of much higher quality (and more likely to win). Of course, if your fair is like ours, you’ll do well with the chicks you are already ordering. In any case, good luck to your sons.

    Now that I’m all grown up, I’m going to be showing my goats this year in open class. I’m very excited, and I’m already looking forward to the fairs I’ll attend.

  12. Uncle Yarra says:

    EcologyStudent,
    Good point. The breeder will not give you his best birds, but you will still be streets ahead of what you get from the hatchery.
    Sharon,
    Tell your boys to look at the quarantine section at the fair. Make sure they can cope with sick birds, otherwise everyone could be taking home a carcass.

  13. NM says:

    Ah, decisions, decisions. My sympathy to Isaiah. Personally, I like things that are pretty, practical and historic (and folkloric … :D )

  14. ctdaffodil says:

    we are fair entrees as well….only the kids enter veggies – they select what is grown and help tend the garden so they get the cash ($2 for blue, $1 for Red and $.50 for yellow) and the get the ribbons as well. They love it. We don’t raise animals so they also enter hobby show at the fair. wholesome competition for them.

  15. tim-10-ber says:

    What an incredible experience this will be for the boys!

  16. knutty knitter says:

    they’re called agricultural and pastoral shows round here and we all entered various sections when we were kids. It was flowers.crafts and that sort of thing for us as, apart from a few motherless lambs, we didn’t have livestock. I think we all won some serious prizes at times – my mother won best overall in the inside stuff at least three times just to prove she could. Then she retired from the field and settled for displays instead. Much later I did several displays with her as well – mostly spinning, knitting, embroidery etc.

    Our small city is still pretty agricultural so I think I must consider getting the kids involved a bit. Probably chickens or flowers.

    viv in nz

  17. Patrick says:

    Sharon,

    I thought I would offer up two other breeds of chickens if you’re interested. My brother-in-law is raising Welsumer’s and French Black Copper Marans. They are all beautiful and his Welsumer rooster (Thunder) is a sight to behold, he’s absolutely stunning. The copper marans are pretty exquisite themselves laying dark brown chocolate eggs and being a great mix of black and teal feathers. The BIL has acquired one of the best copper maran bloodlines in the country from a local guy we met strangely enough in a manner like you write about. If the boys are interested let me know. He can send you either the eggs or hatched pullets. The BIL is going into the business.

    Best of luck to the boys, that’s an awesome thing to be doing. We’re in TN.

    Patrick

  18. Tree says:

    Copper Marans from a breeder!!!!?

    That’s something Isaiah should really consider. They are beautiful.

    Tree

  19. Helen says:

    Due to so many cold related water pipe breaks, water districts are unable to maintain necessary pressure. I anticipate an emergency declaration with FEMA involvement.

  20. tickmeister says:

    I went to the Kansas State Fair for many years when I lived near it. Poultry building was always my favorite. About 100 x 300 feet of cackling cacophony.

    I had a friend from England, overheard him on the phone once explaining the concept of an American state fair. I quote; “Its a big celebration where the farmers go to do pig grasping and see whose bull has the biggest balls.”

    I am unable to improve on his explanation.

  21. Deb says:

    I grew up doing 4-H and the fairs every summer. As a city kid, I entered knitting and baked items–in fact the first sweater I made at age 9 was for the fair. I still have it and the 4th place ribbon I got.

    My daughter went to the County Fair for three years with her horse. She lived in the barn for three weeks only coming home every couple days to take a shower and get more clothes. What is so amazing about the experience is that everyone looked out for each other–Mom’s making sure everyone is fed and hydrated, big kids making sure little ones are safe and ready to show, and everyone congratulating or commiserating depending on how they did.

    Your kids will learns so much from it and not just the raising chickens part!

    Deb

  22. Robyn says:

    We love our local fair – Pass Creek Fall Fair, Castlegar, Canada.
    Last year, by the time we added up all the crafts, jams, pickles, veggies, fruits, sunflowers, sewing, and fairy gardens…did I mention pickles… we had 41 entries in all!

    Our thoughts align with Sharon in that, if we don’t enter, who will?

    I would encourage everyone to enter just one item in your local fair and just see where that takes you.

    Robyn & family

  23. Tree says:

    Sooooo….

    What breed did Isaiah settle on?

    Tree

  24. Eli Adu says:

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  25. She is so beautiful she takes my breath away.

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