09 Sep State Fair!
Jill and I went to the state fair with our friend Tim this week. Maryland’s state fair — at the Timonium fair grounds, in a Baltimore City suburb — is modest in comparison to the big bruisers in the Midwest. Like other east coast fairs, Maryland’s midway — with overpriced food stalls and dizzying rides — dominates and you’d think that’s all it’s about. But, remember, the fair was — and still is — all about the farmers’ harvest, an occasion to show off their good work.
When walking through the livestock barns and watching the earnest farmers proudly grooming their prize pigs, sheep, and cows, it’s easy to get nostalgic about farming. 80% of Americans now live in cities. But for 300-plus years — from the founding of the colonial settlements until 1950 — farming was the heart of America. If we include Native Americans, we could say thousands of years.
Our farming past persists in the structure of our school year — which lets kids loose for three months only because they used to have to work on the farm. The driving age in most states is low (permits at 16) because teenagers had to drive tractors on their farms. Thanksgiving is a farmer’s holiday. Many of our most iconic images, like Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” are of the farm. And we still use expressions like “couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn,” even though most of us haven’t seen a barn except in passing, off the freeway.
Only 1/4 of America’s two million farms are now family operations. And every week, 330 farmers leave their land. Corporate farms dominate, thanks to government subsidies that privilege large operations over small. If you want to support family farms, start by frequenting your local farmers’ market. To learn more about family farms, visit Sustainable Table.
I was amazed to see 4Hers at our state fair. I didn’t imagine that kids still joined this old-fashioned organization, whose motto is I Pledge my Head to clearer thinking, my Heart to greater loyalty,my Hands to larger service, and my Health to better living, for my club, my community, my country, and my world.
Our 4Hers were holding a fashion show to display the clothes they had made. This include a few boys too. As a hip teenager, I would have mocked kids in 4H as “hayseeds” and “hicks.” But now I stand in awe of their competence and self-sufficiency.
The youngsters who were taking care of the livestock were similarly inspiring. When I was a kid, I could hardly find time to feed my cat. These kids are taking care of one-ton cows and herds of sheep. You can see in the way they handle the livestock that they love and respect their animals. But you see too that these kids are rooted in ways that we city folk are not: they know that animals are food and raw material. They give these animals their best in the knowledge that these animals will give their all in return. That’s an honest approach to life.
The pre-teen cowgirls broke my heart. Talk about competence and true grit! As they galloped through their routines in the dirt ring, they appeared strong and confident and destined for good things. But I fear for them because their older counterparts on the midway –the teens who dress like ho’s and center their lives around pleasing men — forecast what awaits them. Mary Pipher got it right in “Revising Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls“: we live in a “girl-poisoning culture.” I’ll spare you my rant but it’s clear that, once girls reach a certain age, their options fall away. Good bye, cow girls.
Jill and I wanted to try the bumper cars but the line was a quarter mile long. As I watched the carnies work, I wondered what becomes of them when the fair season is over. Speaking of which: the best essay you’ll ever read about state fairs — and carnies — is the late David Foster Wallace’s Ticket to the Fair. Wallace got it right in every way and he’s hilarious.
Our state fair is neither large enough nor diverse enough to encourage repeated visits but this year’s did give me a nudge to consider visiting one of the legendary fairs — Iowa or Kansas or Nebraska. Places where the farmer is still a common sight and the broadside of a barn is something we can find easily. Click here for more photos