Information technology analyst Jason Hough, whose family has been raising cattle in Mount Airy for six decades, would rather work with the shorthorn heifers, Angus cattle and Yorkshire pigs on his family farm than with circuit boards or disk drives.
Despite heavy rain in spring and intensive midsummer heat that have delayed the ripening of crops, Hough and other local farmers anticipate a strong showing at the Howard County Fair.
"I don't know how we wouldn't go to the fair," Hough said.
The fair began as a social outlet that enabled farmers to share stories, display the best of their crops and livestock, and interact with neighbors who might live "next door" across several hundred acres. Now in its 66th year, the Howard County Fair is an annual tradition for the Hough family and other farmers. This year, the fair will take place Aug. 6-13 at the county fairgrounds in West Friendship.
Hough's father, Dale Hough, said the fair displays more lawn and garden equipment and crop technology now, but the focus is still on the animals.
"My family has been involved with the fair since the fair came into existence," Jason Hough said.
As a child, he won a public speaking contest with a speech describing his best friend, a cow named Brett. Last year, in his first showing, 9-year-old nephew Colby won the showmanship award. This year, Hough's 7-year-old son Andrew will be helping his family, including cousins Colby and Tyler, 17, show cattle and "a whole lot of pigs."
It's a lot of work, but Hough wouldn't have it any other way. Between his father, brother, nephews and children, four generations of the family live within walking distance of the farm, which they "divide and conquer" daily.
"If I could find a way to make a living from just farming, it would be a done deal," Hough said.
"We all spend all day and night at the fair," Hough said. "We try to put back into an organization that did for us when we were kids and is now doing for our own children. It teaches general responsibility and character that is built by farm life, as well as builds a sense of community. Lots of lifetime friendships are established at the Howard County Fair."
Dale Hough said working on the farm and attending the fair are a "way of life." He has been going to the fair for 60 years and plans to continue entering the competitions and watching his grandchildren enter.
"I believe that I'll probably die at the Howard County Fair," he said jokingly.
That's why his and other dedicated farm families wouldn't dream of letting the weather affect their participation.
"It was really rainy and wet," Jason Hough said. "Then it quit raining and got to be 95 degrees and dried everything out."
Blair Hill, president of the Howard County Fair, said farmers were taking it in stride.
"Potentially lower-yielding crops is certainly a direct side effect of our recent weather," Hill said. "For our exhibitors, it just means that they have relied on watering their garden crops more frequently or keeping their livestock animals cool and well-hydrated."
While farming has become a smaller part of the local economy over the years, the Howard County Fair has seen an increase in entries. Hill, who hasn't missed a fair in 30 years, noted that despite fewer large farm operations in the county, there are more small farms and more residents raising produce and smaller livestock, such as pigs and goats.
"Our fair and our entries reflect the changing dynamics of our county," Hill said.
The heat has played a role in renovations to the fairgrounds this year, including the addition of air conditioning in the main exhibit hall.
Sixth-generation farmer Martha Clark said the excessive rain in the spring caused many farmers to plant late. The heat has altered the timetables for crops such as tomatoes and berries.
Despite the heat and the wet spring, which have delayed ripening, Hill and other fair officials expect good produce.
"We always have a strong showing in tomatoes and other items you can grow in your backyard garden," Hill said. "You don't need 100 acres to come and showcase your tomatoes or cucumbers."
Produce from the Clark Elioak Farm will be reserved for the family's 30-year-old roadside stand, but Clark said the farm will be represented at the fair.
"We loan a few animals to the petting zoo and farm that's at the fair," she said. "We ran it for a couple of years, and we still work with them. Anything we can do to contribute, we're happy to do."
Being a part of the fair is a tradition for Clark and other area farmers.
"We all work very hard, long hours and don't get out much. It's always great for us to meet family and friends and reconnect and see how the kids have grown and who is showing what cows, sheep and pigs," Clark said. "We're watching the children, the grandchildren and the great-grandchildren of people we've watched for the last 50 years."
But the farmers aren't the only people who benefit from the fair, Clark said.
"It helps people realize that there is still a viable farming industry in Howard County, and that is great," she said. "I think if people see all those animals and kids and see how vibrant the fair is, that's a great thing."
Although the fair's main focus is on Howard County agriculture, its activities and offerings include magic shows, pig races, a robotics competition and bingo. A featured musical act is scheduled each day of the fair, ranging from oldies to bluegrass to soul and rhythm and blues.
If you go
What: The Howard County Fair
When: Aug. 6-13, 8 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Where: Howard County Fairgrounds, 2210 Howard County Fair Road, West Friendship 21794
Cost: $5 general admission, $2 for seniors; rides cost extra. Free parking.
For information, call 410-442-1022 or go to http://www.howardcountyfair.org