Different folks have different ways of knowing when the summer is drawing to a close here in Ohio. Some swear by the increased volume of the crickets' chorus, others don't believe that summer is officially over until first frost, and still others adhere strictly to the school calendar, when the kids return to the classroom.
But for many of us, the local county fair gives us the last breath of summer, with its abundant display of nature's bounty framed by the carnival atmosphere of rides, games, and fried food.
In the county where I grew up, the fair usually took place the week before school started, and I ended up spending at least one day there working in the 4-H barn and getting my fill of lemonade, "French" waffles, and fair fries. Here in Wayne County, though, the fair falls on the week after Labor Day, making it feel even more like the end of summer. Students from all county schools get one day away from classes during fair week so that they can enjoy rides and fair food and even look after their own fair entries.
The Wayne County Fair isn't the largest county fair in Ohio, and it certainly doesn't compare in size to the enormous Ohio State Fair or the much-heralded Iowa State Fair. But it consistently rates among the top ten in the state in terms of attendance, and it continues to be labeled as "Ohio's foremost agricultural fair."
The name is well deserved. This year I walked down to the fair twice with a friend and discovered the extent to which it truly represents the county's agricultural base and showcases the many traditions found in agrarian society.
Barn, baby, barn
When you walk through the gates to the fairgrounds, you see tents for local businesses lining the paths, followed by an array of food wagons hawking an astonishing (appalling?) variety of fried foods and other less-than-healthy meal selections (Frito pie? Deep fried s'mores?). Above the hustle and bustle of the fairway, the rides loom large, from the traditional Ferris wheel to other, newer rides designed for thrill-seekers.
Behind all the flash, though, you'll find the old fair barns, each with its own purpose and its own crowd of fans. We started by walking through the home economics barn, bypassing the flower arrangements and quilts to spend time gawking at cakes, cookies, and especially the canned goods.
Baking and other food competitions are nothing new, as homemakers of old often vied for the honor of having the best pie or cake or the tastiest pickles. That tradition is alive and well at the county fair, despite early reports of its demise a mere two years ago, and multiple rows of glass jars revealed the results of local women's food preservation efforts. (I didn't see any male names on the cards for the jars, though I could have missed them.) And I found a pleasant surprise in reviewing the entries: along with the canned and pickled foods, several jars contained dried fruits and vegetables –- the dried apple prize went to a farmer from the local farmers market –- and bags of homemade pasta capped off one row of jars.
We next visited the Grange barn, an octagonal structure that contained displays from local Granges (some of the oldest agricultural organizations in the country). The displays there, as seen at the top of this post, included another selection of home-canned goods (and other home economics projects), posters on various agricultural topics, and home-grown produce. At the center of the building, we discovered an area set up to celebrate National Honey Month, sponsored by the local beekeeping society. Kids gathered around the glassed-in honeycombs to watch bees at work and volunteers stood by to answer questions about harvesting honey (as well as to sell some of the local product).
Junior Fair animal barns ring the fairgrounds, so we spent plenty of time wandering through to see 4-H members' goats, chickens, ducks, geese, rabbits, pigs, sheep, cattle, and horses. It's easy to fall into sentimental raptures over the livestock, especially the younger animals, but the adolescents who bring their animals to the fair have no illusions about the creatures. Cattle and pigs are shown not just for judging, but for auctioning, as we discovered the second day we attended the fair. Judges and bidders look at the animals in terms of the quality and quantity of meat they will produce, and the grand champions in various categories will fetch a hefty price. (And in case the casual fair-goer has any doubts left about that connection between farm and food, the juxtaposition of the ice cream bar outside the cattle barns and the grilled pork loin sandwich wagon outside the pig barns should clarify the situation.)
On our way back around the fairgrounds, we found the horticultural exhibits tucked into a forgotten little barn off to the side. Tables and shelves were lined with the best of the best: dried ears of corn, perfect cabbages, gleaming tomatoes, and plates of practically every home-grown vegetable you can imagine. At the far end of the barn, a separate area revealed theme baskets of vegetables and other items (such as a halftime snack basket with vegetables for making salsa, plus a few empty beer bottles) as well as the giant produce, including huge pumpkins that one little boy wanted to scale. And let's not forget the more unusual entrants at the fair, the mutant vegetables with odd shoots and bulbous spots, sure to bring a smile to anyone's face.
Of course, what would an agricultural fair be without the tools of agriculture? The antiques barn had a number of old-fashioned tools, but since bigger and more modern farms tend to dominate the local landscape, it seemed natural that tractors would dominate the fair. We missed the tractor pull events, but we could hardly miss seeing the long stretch of restored old tractors around the outside of the racetrack: From John Deeres to Olivers and other brands, these old machines grew steadily in size from the oldest to newer "old" models, illustrating the agricultural admonition to "get big or get out." While those tractors were presumably more showpieces than -– if you'll excuse the expression –- work horses, the FFA (Future Farmers of America) barn contained about half a dozen older tractors that students had repaired and refurbished for use.
And lest we not forget who else has a hand in modern agriculture, let's go back to those local businesses spotted upon entering the fair. Among them we found feed and seed supply stores, a local dairy equipment business, tractor sales and repairs, and even the folks from whom you could buy your hybrid and GMO seed for the big monocultures of corn and soy. Got any questions about farming? Don't forget to stop at the Ohio State University booth staffed by folks from the local OARDC and talk to them, either about your farming needs or their agricultural research. (We didn't find much representation of organic farming, though, throughout the fair.)
We made it through both evenings at the fair having enjoyed the visible spectrum of local agriculture but avoided the greasy fair food brought in from elsewhere. (I admit, I did indulge in a generic fair-booth lemonade, but we also dined at the former Grange dining hall, now run by a group that features local products, and we enjoyed local milkshakes from the 4-H booth.) While the ideals of SOLE food and agriculture didn't generally get top billing, the county fair did uphold some of the ideals we've touted as necessary to improving our food system: Family farms, the passing along of farming knowledge to the next generation, an understanding of where our food comes from, and the preservation and celebration of the bounty of the harvest.
The season for county fairs is coming to a close, but if you haven't made it to one yet, make it a priority to do so next year. (It's cheap entertainment: the entrance fee was a mere $2.) Short of visiting or working on a farm yourself, it might be the closest you get to the source of your food –- and it's certainly where you'll find some of the liveliest agricultural traditions still going strong.