Archive for January 14th, 2010

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.