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4-H is one of the centerpieces of the Hillsborough County Agricultural Fair. Courtesy photo.




Animal affair
Agriculture a tradition at NH fairs

07/16/15
By Kelly Sennott ksennott@hippopress.com



Some fair attendees might come for the rides and the food, but they’ll stay for the agriculture — specifically the chicken obstacle races, oxen pulls, balloon shooters on horseback and animals in costume.

Fairs used to be meeting places for farmers, said Rochester Fair General Manager Mark Perry, but today they’re also a means to reach out to those who don’t have agriculture in their everyday life. Janell George, who helps organize the Hillsborough County Agricultural Fair, agreed.
“It’s a chance [for visitors] to touch and feel their heritage and their history, to see where their food comes from and how it’s been grown,” George said. 
 
Animal shows
At most any New Hampshire fair, you’ll find animal shows in which creatures are judged not only on their fine physique and health but also on their ability to jump over hurdles or through hoops. 
In Hillsborough, the animal shows are run by kids who are part of 4-H. They bring in their beef and dairy cattle, poultry, rabbits, goats and dogs and present them in a way that highlights their animals’ best features. Fur is washed, hair is clipped, and in some cases hooves are painted, tails hair-sprayed. Judges consider: How healthy is this animal? How even is its muscle tone, and how clear are its eyes?
Kids are even judged on how clean they keep the pens their animals stay in throughout the course of the fair. In most cases, the kids have cared for these animals since (the animals’) birth. It takes months and months for most to become show-ready, and requires work and responsibility on the kids’ parts. Their participation at the fair is often a result of hours and hours of caring and training, something Perry likes seeing celebrated.
“We hear so much about kids who are doing bad things, and the fairs always showcase kids who are doing great things, and to me that’s very important,” Perry said.
 
Glimpse back into history
In Hillsborough, between animal shows (which in most cases are spectator-friendly) there are things like disc dog demos (dogs playing frisbee) and cowboy mounted shooters (people on horseback riding really fast and shooting at balloons). Then there are the horse- and oxen-pulling competitions, usually conducted by adult trainers. (These events happen at most fairs, including in Rochester.)
“There are people who come to the Hillsborough fair to watch those shows specifically,” George said. “I think [the pulling events] also take people back in history in their minds. More than one hundred years ago, before we had cars, we had oxen and horses. That’s how people plowed their fields and built their houses, by dragging logs from out of the woods.”
 
Education
Perry thinks education is one of the most important aspects of the fair, and not just among 4-H kids. 
“Certainly here in Rochester, we’ve become pretty far removed from our agriculture,” he said. “There are people who don’t realize where their milk comes from or where the beef, bacon and eggs they eat in the morning come from. And people want to know. They want to get in touch with that part of their life, particularly as the movement to eat local gains popularity.”
Most fairs in New Hampshire have changed drastically the past 30 to 40 years, particularly as agriculture has become less prevalent in everyday society. 
“The fairs are not as much used in some areas as agricultural meeting places or farmer meeting places as maybe they once were. Instead, it’s ... the non-agricultural community’s only opportunity to see traditional farm animals and contests,” he said. 
 
Smaller farms
The types of exhibitors, Perry said, have kind of changed too. Where there used to be full-time farmers there are now more hobbyists and part-timers.
“There are more of the homesteader variety, if you will, who are making the most of their five acres by raising a flock of chickens or beef cow or something like that,” he said. “Those are the most enthusiastic supporters you have in many cases because they’re very interested in it, and they like the opportunity to network and market what they have to sell.”
George said she’s seeing this trend reflected in 4-H events, too. Most kids who bring larger animals grew up on bigger farms, but she’s seeing more and more “non-farm” kids showing smaller critters like chickens and rabbits.
“They realize it doesn’t take a lot of space to raise a chicken or rabbit,” George said. “The last five years, we’ve started to see an increase in participation, especially in the sheep and goat divisions. … I think there are more families who want that connection to rural living, and the youth learn a lot about themselves when they have to take care of animals.” 
 
As seen in the July 16, 2015 issue of the Hippo.





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