County fair makes room for new trends

Annual attraction offers homegrown tradition with an urban appeal

Howard County

August 04, 2002|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

Local fairs aren't what they used to be.

Herb-infused olive oils have edged out canned beans, bathroom attendants hand out towels for tips, snack bars have air conditioning, and alpacas - not cows - are the new must-have animals.

Of course, the good old stuff is there, too: apple pies, herds of livestock, crop displays, petting zoos and crafts.

But more and more, fairs are obliged to move over and make room for new trends.

"Fairs have to change with the times. They have to be progressive and stay on top of things," said Andy Cashman, vice president of the Maryland Association of Agricultural Fairs and Shows Inc.

"If they just sit and watch the world go by, they're going to die."

In Howard County, where farmland is disappearing quickly, the county fair has mostly stayed true to its agricultural roots and aims for an educational focus.

But it also has built six spiffy $45,000 cattle barns, a high-end Lions Club concession stand, plus exhibition space for digital photography and vendors selling suburban patios and gazebos.

"We're constantly trying to adapt," said Charles M. Coles Jr., who has been in charge of the fair's farm crops department for 30 years. "We want to make it more interesting and accessible to those who don't have a big farm in Howard County, which is harder and harder to do."

Coles' area has been hit hard this year by drought and heat. Hay and corn displays are expected to suffer. But they no longer drive the department. Eggs and sunflowers do.

"They've [eggs and sunflowers] really come into their own - at least tripled over the last 20 years, if not quadrupled," Coles said. "They're urban-agricultural enterprises that anyone with a little land can do."

Less cattle, more lambs

As new houses overtake farmland, livestock entries in the county are changing, too.

"We've had decreases in the number of cattle and increases in lambs and pigs," said Vaughn Turner, the Howard County fair board's vice president.

Kathleen Littleton, 14, of Clarksville entered two lambs and a pig at this year's fair, which runs through Saturday. She kept the pig - which she raised from a piglet to its current 253 pounds in just a few months - at her 4-H leader's 6-acre farmette, but the two lambs lived in the back yard of her home.

"Raising lambs is not hard, laborious work," she said. "It's really just a commitment of time."

Kathleen's father built a pen for them and converted his kids' former playhouse into a storage shed for the animals' supplies.

"We're true suburbanites, born and bred," said her mother, Valerie Littleton. "But we thought this was a really interesting thing we could do as a family. It was a very easy transition."

Baltimore County's 4-H fair went a step further for suburbanites and let kids rent livestock at nearby farms. They paid $1 and took care of the animal, which stayed on the farm until fair time.

Pigs and lambs were not alluring enough for the Carroll County 4-H/FFA Fair, which ended Friday.

There, llamas and alpacas ran through obstacle courses previously reserved for more traditional livestock. The fair brought them in two years ago. Alpacas also made an appearance at the 4-H fair in Baltimore County, which took place last month.

A new breed of fair

"People think "fair" and "4-H," and they think it's just cows and cooking," said Mary Ellen Arbaugh, secretary for the Carroll County fair board. "But it's also electricity and photography and computers, as well as the traditional things. ... The nature of the fair changes as interest areas change."

Cashman agreed. "Fairs used to be kind of groupings of people. Now they're more of a business and have to be run like a business, which means thinking about what's going to bring people in."

Baltimore County's 4-H fair president, Joyce Sheats, said she is looking into adding rides next year "to bring in the public more." The fair, held at the state fairgrounds in Timonium, draws 2,000 to 3,000 people.

Bigger fairs, such as the Maryland State Fair, which draws about a half-million people annually, and the Howard County Fair, which draws between 100,000 and 120,000, recognize that they need to grow and adjust to an increasingly urban culture. Both offer bathroom attendants and thrill rides.

`An educational thing'

But they also know that their biggest commodity is the window they offer into rural life.

"It's an educational thing," said Howard County Fair President H. Mitchell Day. "People want to see a lot of different animals and what farm life is like. They don't get that chance often."

That museum quality keeps people coming and fair attendance growing, according to Cashman, who also is the assistant general manager at the state fair, which will open Aug. 23.

"It's easy entertainment," he said. "Everybody has something they can relate to, whether their grandfather used to raise tomatoes or they just like to look at them. ... People like to see the roots of their hometown. You can see that at the fair."

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