Seed Money

Ag industries come together for the country's biggest indoor farm show.

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The Pennsylvania Farm Show is always pointing out that it’s the largest indoor agricultural event in the country, so maybe it makes sense to start with the buildings. The Farm Show is held just outside Harrisburg at the Farm Show Complex & Expo Center — a space, as its name suggests, dedicated to the Farm Show but supported throughout the year by car shows and rodeos and proms. Of course you can’t corral the Keystone State’s largest industry into one space overnight. It’s been an 80-year process that’s resulted in a hodgepodge of buildings with varying degrees of stylistic intent and temperature control. To say that to walk through the Farm Show is to walk back in time isn’t to be wistful for some diminishing agrarian way of life, but to say that the main entrance was just built in 2001, and the Main Building, at the rear, opened way back in 1931.

The first thing you see on entering the lobby of the Farm Show is a long mural celebrating the state’s agricultural industry. The perspective is a bit weird, and some of the people depicted have bizarre proportions, but oh well, you rationalize — this is a Farm Show Complex and not an art museum. To the right of the main entrance is the Exposition Hall, which houses the PA Preferred Farm Show Food Court. The state’s main agricultural associations set up long counters where they sold apple dumplings, apple cider, raw apples, trout chowder, baked trout sandwiches, pulled pork sandwiches, fried broccoli, fried cauliflower, fried zucchini, fried onions, maple ice cream, maple candy, baked potatoes, French fries, potato doughnuts, grilled portabellas, mushroom soup, fried mushrooms, fried mozzarella cheese cubes, milkshakes, and milk. You can’t sit down to eat. The center of the food court is set up with long, belly-button-high tables covered with black plastic tablecloths that by the end of the day are caked with ketchup and tartar sauce and horseradish sauce and the tons of golden brown crumbs you get whenever copious amounts of deep-fried foods are eaten in any one place.

Behind the food court, high school students set up educational displays. These are competitive displays made of construction paper, props, cut-out letters — little 3-D setups that tackled areas of agricultural concerns. I personally had a fondness for those students who came up with clever names — “Don’t Delay, Dry Your Hay” or “Shine a Light on Tomato Blight” — that I thought provided graceful entrances into topics such as drying hay and tomato blight. “Where Have All the Bees Gone?” did best “BEES,” but “Lyme Disease” ultimately won. I was surprised that places beyond the top three were revealed. Isn’t it discouraging for students to know that their look into “Stream Pollution From Pasture Runoff” landed in 20th place?

The rest of the Exposition Hall, as its called, is filled with farm equipment. These tractors and trailers and plowers and feeders are exactly what you’d expect to see at a Farm Show, so after I ate a bunch of fried things and judged the student educational displays on obviously all the wrong criteria, I walked back past the Phantom of the Opera and into the halls where Pennsylvania’s agricultural products are put up for judging.

These products can be divided into two general categories: animals, and plants and fungi and things made from plants and things made from animals that don’t necessitate the death of the animal. The latter compete in individual rooms that flow into one another alongside the far end of the 1931 Main Hall. These are great rooms. Diorama-like spaces line opposing walls of each room, and various industries create competing product displays. It feels like walking through an apple museum, and then a mushroom museum, and then an edible nut museum, and then a museum simultaneously devoted to maple syrup products and things having to do with bees.

Like apples much, Pennsylvania?

The delineations within these kinds of contests never fails to fascinate me. Imagine you grow apples. You could enter your apples in Tray Pack Bushel (“one standard fiverboard bushel carton, stacked on double trays”), Consumer Package 16 to 24 pounds (“open container, display package [exclusive of paper, plastic or mesh bags”); Consumer Package 8 to 12 pounds; Bagged Apples (“2 new transparent bags each containing at least 3 pounds of apples”); Tray of Apples (“standard commercial ‘cupped’ tray of apples”); Overwrap Tray (“heat-sealed overwrapped tray of 8 apples”); or Plate of 5 Apples, which is exactly what it sounds like. Each of these is divided into 21 smaller subcategories for 19 types of apples, as well as collections of green/yellow and red unlisted apples. I often wonder why I’m drawn to the minutia of these kinds of competitions. I’ve come to think the distinctions between such categories aren’t as important to me as the simple fact that they exist. I like knowing that there are people thinking so much about apples and nuts and mushrooms.

The Pennsylvania Farm Show features over 6,000 animals. Most are not a surprise: horses, cows, sheep, pigs, hens, chickens, rabbits, and goats. The show set up a wall of caged pigeons for the first time this year; a sign asked people what they thought, and if it should return next year and possibly expand. The animals are judged in categories so specific they put apples to shame. Both adults and children compete, the latter’s animals sold after judging in an arena at the center of all the animal halls.

I saw a sign advertising duckling shows at 11, 2, and 4. I went to the 2 p.m. show. During the show, you stand around a small pool with small stairs leading up to a ramp in the middle. Three kids put about 10 ducklings in the pool and then forced them up the stairs with their arms. At the top, a duckling would reach out for a bowl of food that was just within its reach, until the crush of ducklings behind shoved it down the slide. This was repeated many times. You wonder if that’s all there is, but then keep watching. You’d be surprised how hypnotizing the process can be. It was like staring at a living screen saver.

“Family Living” is the name sensitively given the realm of the Farm Show that everyone thinks of traditionally as women’s work, without actually coming out and saying so. One far end of the Main Hall is filled with displays of quilts and hand-woven baskets and canned fruits and dresses made my middle-school girls involved in 4-H. Small corrals were created for the entries in each cake and pie category, and decorated accordingly: Apple pie featured smiling apples with legs and arms, while pineapple upside-down cake had those tissue paper table decorations that open to become freestanding pineapples. Some categories had giant scrapbooks that documented the winners from the county fairs across Pennsylvania. They included recipes, photos, and press clippings, these kinds of contests being very well covered by their local newspapers. The number of entrants was included as well. It’s endearing to see the photo of a winner smiling broadly, even when hers was the only entry. There were some two-person contests, too, but even the second place winners of these seemed happy. A bad day at a pineapple upside-down cake contest is better than a good day of work, I suppose.

Family Living features an open photography contest. Rules state that the photos must be 8″ x 10″, and you can tell that a lot of these photos were never intended to be be blown up to 8″ x 10″ size. I love the photo contest for this, for the fact that someone had a photo they loved at 3″ x 5″, and blowing it up and blurring it in the process did nothing to diminish that love. I think this is because content trumps all aesthetic qualities in this contest. That’s what the categories suggest to me, anyway. Action/Sports, Portrait and Personality, Children, Scenic, Still Life, Fair Photo, Domestic Animals, Wile Animals, and Critter, which, though wild animals, are stated to “bugs, insects, etc.” — etc. implying that you know what they mean when they say “critter,” so enough with the word games. The winners of the best Farm Show photos are printed in the following year’s program. 2009’s First Place winner — “A Friendly Gathering” — is a picture of five sheep lying together in the corner of a pen. Second Place went to “The 3rd Antique Tractor Display with the 1st Antique Tractor Pull tractors waiting their turn,” a photo that delivers on its title and is well worth, if not 1,000 words, those 15.

   A family of butterfaces.

I took my own photo at the Fair, or had one taken of me, in front of the annual butter display. This is a life-size tableaux made of 900 pounds of butter. An artist shaped these into the scene of a family at breakfast, the father bringing a cow to the table. After thinking how much the photos in the contest relied on cliches, I was unsure about having my photo taken in front of a life-size scene made of butter. But so many people wanted their own photo taken that you really don’t have time to hem and haw, and it felt better to risk being obvious than to pass up a way to remember this day.

I went to the judging of the cornbread contest, but before we got to the cornbread, a volunteer from Family Living announced the winner of a new essay contest. The theme: “Why Buy American Made Products.” The winner read her essay on stage, and talked broadly about jobs and America. Organizers had made a giant novelty check for $1,000 for the occasion, but the volunteer just handed this to the winner as she walked off the stage, never performing the kind of ceremony that you have a giant check made for in the first place.

In his story on the Iowa State Fair — “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All” — David Foster Wallace observed how a lot of the stuff sold at that fair was “of a very special and lurid sort.” Thighmasters. Investment gimmicks. Knives. Crap from TV. This is, he says, because Midwesterners are “Kmart People,” and since Iowa’s event is both farm show and ride-and-game state fair, it attracts all kinds — farmers and Kmart People alike.

Pennsylvania doesn’t roll its Farm Show and State Fair into one single event, but I still expected a bit of this crap to make its way into the Farm Show. It did not. But this isn’t to say it remained exclusively an agricultural affair. One end of the Main Hall was filled with small food producers, independent businesses excited for you to try their dips and pretzels and elk jerky and peanut butter, and to ask where you’re from and be a bit disappointed to hear that you’re from Philadelphia and therefore probably can’t, in fact, make it to their store just outside Harrisburg, but why don’t you take their card anyway. Some of these products were very good. Many oozed a homespun origin. You could almost picture the moment some family member told another family member at a Christmas party that she really should think about selling her dip, and the Farm Show seemed like a great opportunity for exposure.

The idea of improving your professional or personal station in life pervaded the Farm Show. One woman was selling embroidery machines; she sat in a director’s chair reading a magazine while a machine embroidered an incredibly detailed image of a school bus onto a light gray sweatshirt with cinched wrists and waist. A sign said that the purchase of a professional embroidery machine came with free lessons on how to professionally operate an embroidery machine. Alpaca farmers passed our literature on starting your own alpaca farm; a sign in the men’s room above the hand drier advertised a herd of three males and eight females, three pregnant, for $24,000.

I’ve been to car shows and duck decoy shows and flower shows and RV shows and hobby aquarium shows and a whole host of other kinds of shows. Every one suggests its own distinct narrative, but most are grounded in some kind of construction. Some suggest happiness can be achieved by owning something new and shiny. Some tout an idealized vision of nature. Others promise escape. But nothing is constructed at the Farm Show. The Farm Show doesn’t try to suggest a way life can be, but more reflects life as it is, warts and all.

Farming is hard work, and there’s nothing at the farm show that romanticizes the work. But things are complicated for everyone — farmers and non- alike — and the Farm Show doesn’t try to pull the competitive wool over anyone’s eyes. You think you may have made a winning spice cake, and then the judges disqualify you since your cake is square, not round, and print this on your entry card for everyone to see. You have a wild animal problem, so you visit the booth of a wildlife control service and look into a cupcake pan full of various animal pellets to decide whether you’re dealing with voles or mice. You may be in high school and disappointed to place 20th, but that’s life. The Farm Show doesn’t sell Thighmasters and get-quick-rich-schemes, but it does feature services for those with knee problems and a nonprofit focused on hearing loss.

Of course the thing about life is that it’s not all technical disqualifications and deteriorating knees. And neither is the Fair. Who knows, maybe you’ll win Supreme Champion Dairy Cow. Maybe your photo of a butterfly in your garden will win the $10 first prize, which isn’t bad for two second’s work. Maybe your cajun dips will take off. Or you’ll find your calling in machine embroidery. As in life, there are no guarantees at the Farm Show. But in both, anything’s possible. • 15 January 2010

 

Jesse Smith is a writer based in Philadelphia.

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