The Maryland Sheep & Wool Festival, the largest show of its kind in the country, is expected to draw tens of thousands of sheep producers, shearers, chefs and spectators to the Howard County Fairgrounds this weekend.
More than 1,000 sheep, from the common Hampshire to the rare and ancient English Cotswold variety, to the more modern California variegated mutant (that's CVM, for short), will be the focus of all the attention as the event celebrates its 20th anniversary.
"This is the largest, as far as I know, in attendance. It's definitely the oldest," said Janice Grauberger, communications director for the American Sheep Industry Association in Denver, Colo.
The association's vice president, Pierce Miller, will come from Texas for the event, she said.
While other states have their sheep shows, Ms. Grauberger said, Maryland's is unusual in that ordinary consumers "get to touch the products and the animals that produce them."
The festival, which attracted an estimated 45,000 people last year, will feature more than 30 breeds in the largest breed display in the country, said Gwen Handler, who has been co-chairwoman of the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival Committee since 1981.
It was about the time Ms. Handler took up the job that the festival outgrew its original venue in the Carroll County Agricultural Center in Westminster and moved to the Howard County Fairgrounds.
The festival was an outgrowth of the Maryland Wool Pool, a June event in which sheep farmers combine their fleeces for sale to a large fabric mill.
"The hand spinners would get in the way," Ms. Handler explained, as they looked for a few fleeces to supply their small businesses.
To give them a place to mingle with producers, the festival was born. Since then, however, it has become much more than place to trade wool.
One of the most popular events has become the working sheep dog demonstrations, during which border collies crouch, run and stop on a dime to keep their flocks together.
In one pavilion, festival-goers are urged to sample Maryland lamb cooked into everything from lamb sausage to lamb burgers to sheep milk fudge.
On Saturday, David Gilmore, chef of the Quail Ridge Inn in Mount Airy, will demonstrate gourmet lamb cooking.
On Sunday afternoon, the sampling will reach a climax during the Grand Lamb Cook-off.
Other demonstrations will feature such things as how sheep have been sheared through the ages, knitting techniques and weaving lessons for children.
A particular favorite is the sheep-to-shawl contest, a sort of fleecy triathlon combining shearing, spinning and knitting.
Although the festival organizers try hard to please the "unsheeped," there still are plenty of activities for the professional producers.
On Friday, before the more public part of the festival begins, shepherds can attend lectures on the genetics of colored sheep and new ways of controlling medical costs in flocks.