Agritainment Replacing Just Plain Ag
Last Saturday evening the Cavey family journeyed to the Maryland State Fair in search of food, fun and entertainment. When we returned, I stopped and pondered our adventure, realizing there has been a cultural shift in the Fair.
The first State Fair I can remember was in 1964. It was my first year in 4-H and I was competing with my dairy heifer, Frisk. The fair was overwhelming from a 4-Her's perspective. The dairy competition was huge and my abilities as a nine-year-old were small.
Over the next 10 years, the Fair was the highlight of the dairy cattle showing season for me. I learned and competed. By 15, I was living the entire 10 days on a "queen-size" bed made of six bales of straw and had the responsibility of feeding and milking the show herd. Like all the farm boys, I loved living at the fair, caring for the show animals and hanging out with the teenage farm girls.
In the 1990's as a "part-time farmer," our five acres of vegetables provided many entries for my family and the two neighbor boys who worked for us. It was fun for the boys and provided a little competition for my farmer’s market buddies and me. One year I even won the Governor's award!
Later in life, I changed gears into the political realm. For eight years, I organized and managed the booth for the Maryland Republican Party in the Exhibition Hall. We would rent a single 10 X 10 booth most years, however, during the gubernatorial election years, it was a double-wide size plastered with candidate signs! Our exhibitor request to the Fair was due in early June and many times we would have to fight for booth position within the packed hall.
However, life has changed… and so has the Fair.
Agriculture in Maryland is slowly slipping away and the exhibits at the fair reflect the changing industry. The field crop exhibits are few and far between. The vegetable and fruit entries are noticeably less as are the entries for eggs, butter and honey. (The tobacco is gone!) The bright side in the Farm and Garden building are the wine entries which are becoming competitive…they did not even exist 30 years ago. (Strange we replaced tobacco with alcohol.)
The Cow Palace made me sad. Even with adding goats and Alpacas to the building, it had an empty appearance. Gone are the hundreds of 4-H dairy cattle. The handful left reflect the dairy industry decline in Maryland. The highlight of the building was the huge exhibit by the University of Maryland.
The Birthing Center and the attached Ag Exhibit are one of the best hands-on agriculture exhibits in Maryland. The Ag School pulls out all stops and literally brings life to the Fair! Kudos to my Alma Mater for bringing "agritainment" and education to Timonium.
The real shock this year was the lack of vendors inside the Exhibition Hall. It was spread out and empty with a huge sand carving in the rear of the building. The Republican Party did get a corner space, which would have been impossible just three short years ago and the Democrats were still stuck in a small mid-row booth. However, when I visited, on the first Saturday of the Fair at 6 P.M., it was like a ghost town inside the building.
So, what has happened to the best 11 days of summer? Our culture has changed.
My three-year-old grandson Jake was the best reflection. He wanted to eat, drink and use the potty. In the Cow Palace he was scared of the animals and wanted to be carried. The only interest was the baby chicks hatching and a newborn piglet. He was bored to tears in the Exhibition Hall. Only the temptation of getting a candy apple kept his interest.
Outside on the midway was a different story. He didn't mind the loud music and noise. He loved the lights, the whirling rides and carnies barking, trying to draw you into their games of chance. He walked with ease, holding my hand unafraid of the rowdy teens and tattooed freaks, which were everywhere as we walked from point to point. He was afraid of the animals, yet fearless among the humans, who were acting like animals.
With the waning of Maryland Agriculture the powers that be have looked to the lowest common denominator to make the Fair successful – entertaining on a three-year-old level. Gone are the Ag competitions and ushered into its place is agritainment. Gone are the vendors, who wanted to sell you hot tubs, siding, kitchen utensils, giving those left a little more room in the big air-conditioned hall.
I miss the barn full of cows and the shelves crammed with vegetable displays, but the Fair is still the same in some ways. There are still nine-year-old 4-H'ers competing; there is still a "Farm Queen;" there are still plenty of teenage boys in boots with their arms dangling around a teenage girl wearing really small shorts her mother does not know about. The Republican booth is still mystically bigger, better staffed and more informative than their Democrat counterparts.
The Maryland State Fair, however, is still about food, lights, rides and entertainment and that's okay because even 48 years later – I still think it is the best 11 days of summer.