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‘The most incredible teaching experience’: Maryland State Fair opening weekend offers up-close encounters with farm animals

Sights and sounds from the 2019 Maryland State Fair.

Reed Archer pressed his face and hands against a large glass case Saturday and smiled at the yellow chicks darting around inside.

The 3-year-old Catonsville boy loves reading books about baby animals, and his first visit to the Maryland State Fair offered the opportunity to see them up close, said his mother, Emily. The fuzzy creatures were days old, hatched in the fair’s “birthing center.”

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With newer features like a mobile escape room, a craft beer and wine garden, and an “extreme dogs” show, the State Fair has changed with the times. But longtime exhibits like the birthing center remain popular, showcasing the fair’s mission to educate the public about agriculture.

“This is the most incredible teaching experience,” said Tom Hartsock, a retired University of Maryland, College Park animal science professor. “I do more education here in 11 days than I could do in any other venue.”

This is Hartsock’s 18th year directing the fair’s birthing center, where visitors can watch chicks hatch and see cows and pigs give birth.

Many Americans are disconnected from agriculture today, he said.

“We’re trying to show people at least some of what is going on back at the farm, in terms of the production of their food,” he said as two cows nearby entered the early stages of labor.

Curious visitors could ask questions of Hartsock and a group of college students staffing the birthing center.

“No question is a bad question,” said Rachel Heeley, 20, a College Park junior who wants to become a large-animal veterinarian.

One of the most common inquiries, Hartsock said: “When will she give birth?”

“As I say to my students, birth and labor are not an event — they are a process,” said Hartsock, adding births will be announced throughout the week on the birth center’s Twitter page (@statefairbirths).

After rain Friday, fair goers enjoyed blue skies Saturday and temperatures in the 70s for the opening weekend of the fair, which runs through Labor Day.

Manindra Singh, 30, who lives outside of New York, hoisted a huge stuffed unicorn over his shoulders. He and his friends still were trying to figure out where they would put the giant carnival prize. Singh said he loved the atmosphere of his first visit to the fair.

“Great food,” he said “Really good ambiance. It’s just fun.”

Other visitors have been making the trip to Timonium for decades. Bruce Lay, 68, said he’s been going to the horse races there each August since 1969.

“I came here when I was 18 and I bet $50 on a horse [that] got beat by a nose,” said the South Baltimore native, adding that he made $80 a week at the time typing freight bills for a trucking company. “I think I walked out with my head down.”

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Over the years, he said, “I learned how to go home a winner and I learned how to go home a loser.”

Lay retired about six years ago from the Anne Arundel County schools, where he was an office worker. He moved to Florida a few years ago from Glen Burnie and made it his goal to visit the horse races for a 50th August visit this year.

“It’s a quest,” he said.

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