The champion steers, softball-size tomatoes and blue-ribbon pies will be back, as they are every year. But when the state fair and county fairs throughout Maryland open this summer, one familiar sight will be missing: chickens.
State agricultural officials, determined to safeguard Maryland's poultry industry from the devastating effects of avian influenza, have decided that barnyard birds from one flock should not mix with their cousins from other farms. And that means that animals with feathers aren't welcome at the fairs.
"It definitely will be different this year," said Andy Cashman, assistant general manager for the Maryland State Fair, where the prize-winning roosters and geese normally share a building with the rabbits. But, he added, the state "is doing the right thing to save the industry."
Poultry exhibits have been canceled at the Carroll County 4-H fair, which opens Saturday, and in Howard County, where Rob Moxley, a fair director said, "We'll miss having poultry at the fair - it is a popular exhibit - but the most important thing is the health of the species."
Officials in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia and West Virginia also have canceled poultry exhibits and competitions at fairs. An outbreak of avian flu in Virginia raised concerns about the potential spread of the disease.
The prohibition applying to Maryland fairs stems from an order, issued in April by the state secretary of agriculture, banning the importation of poultry from any state with a flock under quarantine for avian influenza. That order also declares that "no poultry shall be assembled from multiple sources for public exhibition or competition at any fair, show or other event in Maryland."
"A lot of times with low pathogenic flu, you don't see any symptoms, so if we have these birds at the fair they could be disseminating it and we would not know it," said Jim Fearer, a veterinarian who is manager of field operations for the state Department of Agriculture. "We felt we had to take the safety precautions."
The order applies to ducks, pigeons and waterfowl, as well as chickens. An exception was made for the raptors displayed by the Department of Natural Resources, because those birds are essentially immune to the disease, Fearer said.
Like influenza in humans, avian flu begins as a respiratory infection. The affliction can develop into pneumonia, causing death, said Roger Olson, a former Department of Agriculture veterinarian.
The avian influenza outbreak has taken a heavy toll on turkey and chicken farmers in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, where losses have been estimated at $150 million. Nearly 200 Virginia turkey and chicken farms have been quarantined.
An outbreak of the disease in 1983 led to the death or destruction of 15.7 million birds in Pennsylvania and at least 60,000 chickens in Maryland. No cases have been reported on Maryland's Eastern Shore during the current outbreak, according to William Satterfield, executive director of the Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc.
Satterfield said "a lot of effort" had gone into protecting chickens and eggs on the Delmarva peninsula, including washing poultry industry vehicles arriving from Virginia, fumigating eggs shipped to Delmarva from Virginia and limiting poultry industry travel to Virginia.
According to Satterfield, the flu appears to be subsiding in Virginia, where no new cases have been reported since July 3. Still, he noted, about 100 Virginia farms remain quarantined.
At a family farm in the Harney area of northwestern Carroll County, Amy and Kevin Ridinger are prepping two steers, goats and a small warren of rabbits for the Carroll County 4-H/Future Farmers of America Fair, which opens Saturday in Westminster. The siblings also have raised chickens that in a different year would have competed for blue ribbons.
"I was kind of disappointed," said Amy, 15. "We have capons ... and we can't show or sell them."
The pair probably will lose a couple of hundred of dollars when the livestock sale comes around the last day of the fair. The Ridinger children's capons - castrated male chickens raised for meat - have been champions in recent years and have sold for $100 to $500 each at auctions that raise money for the 4-H program.
Such traditional favorites as the farm queen competition and the cake auction are on the Carroll fair's schedule, along with a new event: a "tractor pull" with riding lawn mowers. Organizers held out hope that the poultry ban would be lifted in time for the customary beauty contests among the Rhode Island reds and the silkies, and they asked youngsters to submit their entries. But 4-H officials also sent a letter encouraging the young farmers to work up educational displays for the poultry building.
Amy is assembling a display of photographs to illustrate the various cuts of poultry meat and show the difference between a capon, a broiler and a roaster. Kevin, 12, will create a poster showing the breeds of chickens.
The chickens may be no-shows this year, but that doesn't mean the youngsters who raise them aren't competing - with their posters and displays.
"They will be judged and given premium award money and ribbons," said Jennifer Reynolds, a 4-H extension educator in Carroll. "Judged just like any other fair entry."
Sun staff writer Tricia Bishop contributed to this article.