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After 2020 Harford Farm Fair canceled, youth exhibitors, fair organizers work to find a way forward

The Partick sisters, Abbie, back, and Kloe lead their Hereford cows Titanic and Olive to their barn Tuesday morning at the Patrick Meadows Farm in Darlington. The sisters are 4-H members and are disappointed that the Harford County Farm Fair has been cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Partick sisters, Abbie, back, and Kloe lead their Hereford cows Titanic and Olive to their barn Tuesday morning at the Patrick Meadows Farm in Darlington. The sisters are 4-H members and are disappointed that the Harford County Farm Fair has been cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Matt Button / The Aegis/Baltimore Sun Media)

Sisters Abbie and Kloe Patrick would, in an ordinary year, be presenting animals they have raised on their family’s farm in Darlington in a show ring and listening closely to a judge’s comments on what they like about the animal and how it has been presented, and how the young exhibitors can improve.

This year, the Patrick sisters have exhibited their livestock in “virtual” shows, through photos of them with their animals, as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has forced the cancellation of live exhibitions.

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“You take pictures at your barn instead of [livestock] leaving the barn to go into the ring,” Abbie, 15, said Monday.

Kloe, 12, said she does not like the virtual shows, noting that “I feel like you don’t get the whole experience of going into the show ring.”

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“I like to be able to actually see the judge and see what he likes for showmanship,” she added.

A major exhibition for which Abbie, Kloe and their fellow youth 4-H members have been preparing their livestock is the annual Harford County Farm Fair, one of the most popular local summer events and a time when 4-Hers and other youth exhibitors can show animals they have raised, as well as arts and crafts and other projects to a wide segment of the public.

The annual 4-H Livestock Sale also happens on the final day of the fair. It is an opportunity for youth in 4-H and Future Farmers of America to show and sell their livestock at auction, earning money they can put toward college or reinvest in projects for the next year’s fair.

Over the weekend, the board of directors for the Harford County Farm Fair announced that the 2020 event would be canceled, due to the impact of the novel coronavirus. But Harford County 4-H organizers are still considering how they will accommodate the show and sale of 4-H market livestock.

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“The kids are our number-one priority, and they deserve not just a sale but a show as well,” Mike Doran, a member of the fair board and chair of the livestock sale committee, wrote in an email Monday. “We are not sure yet how this can be accomplished, but we are pursuing potential opportunities to have both a show and a sale.”

Abbie Patrick planned to show three cows at the Farm Fair, including two heifers that would come back to the farm for breeding and a steer slated for the auction. She has been raising the steer since he was born last May and getting him ready for the livestock sale through methods such as tracking feeding and weight gain so he would meet weight requirements to qualify for the sale.

He would have been one of the younger steers in the sale, had the fair not been canceled. Most steers are about a year-and-a-half old when they enter the auction, Abbie noted. She will not be able to show the steer next year, though, “because he will be too heavy and too old” by then.

“It’s aggravating that it’s canceled,” she said of the fair. “But, at the same time, everybody’s in the same boat right now, so everybody’s been working for almost a year on their animals and nobody is getting to show.”

Officials with 4-H at the state level, which is part of the University of Maryland Extension, have declared that no 4-Her can participate in a fair during July, “so that automatically cancels our exhibits” at the Harford fair, said Elke Neuburger, a fair board member and coordinator of 4-H programs for the event.

“If they open it up in August then they’ll be able to take their exhibits to the [Maryland] State Fair, but that depends on state 4-H’s recommendations,” Neuburger said.

Kloe Patrick said she was going to show a heifer and a couple of chickens at the county fair, but did not plan to participate in the auction. She said she enjoys the showmanship aspect of exhibiting animals, as well as interacting with members of the public.

“I like interacting with the public,” she said. “I can teach them about where their food comes from and teach them more about livestock.”

Benefits of 4-H, farm life

Abbie, Kloe and their family live on Patrick Meadows Farm in Darlington, founded through their father Steve’s side of the family. The Patricks raise beef cattle, pork, poultry and egg-laying hens, according to their mother, Carrie.

The animals her daughters would have shown in the fair are “bred and owned,” meaning they are born to animals living on their farm, according to Patrick. She said “it’s sad for all of the 4-H kids and the FFA kids” who cannot show at the fair this year, and she hopes organizers can come up with “something small” to support the youths.

Harford County schools have been closed for in-person instruction since mid-March. That gives Abbie, a sophomore at North Harford High School and Kloe, a sixth-grader at North Harford Middle School, more time to work with their animals.

Abbie said she would normally work on her 4-H projects after school, meaning it could take weeks to complete a project, but now she has full days to work on them.

“We only have online classes one day a week,” she said. “It’s definitely given me more opportunities to go out and work with animals and work in the fields.”

Kloe described how the time off has helped her sharpen her skills in working with animals, to get them “halter broken” and ensure she can keep the animal calm “so they won’t be acting up for you in the show ring.”

“All in all, it has taught them more responsibility and [given them] something to look forward to,” Carrie Patrick said of her daughters’ involvement in 4-H.

She noted that “I truly believe it helps keep them out of trouble,” as they work to avoid any situations that could keep them from participating in animal showings.

Doran, the livestock committee sale chair, said livestock superintendents and committee members have been holding online meetings as they try to work out a way to support the youth sellers.

“Harford County has some of the most loyal buyers that love to support these hard-working kids, and they have been calling me all weekend, wanting to know how they can support them after they heard about the fair being canceled,” he wrote in his email.

He stressed that young people have already made many sacrifices because of COVID-19, including high school seniors who are missing out on many end-of-the-year activities. Some prospective sellers are in their last year in 4-H, meaning 2020 would be the last time they can participate in the livestock sale.

“We can’t and won’t give up with out fighting for our youth,” Doran stated. “They are the future of agriculture and the future for our county, our state and our country. We are grooming them to be leaders. What kind of leaders do we want for our future?”

Planning for next year

The 33rd annual Farm Fair was scheduled for late July. It typically brings 5,000 to 10,000 people a day to the fairgrounds at the Harford County Equestrian Center in Bel Air to enjoy food, live music, multiple agricultural exhibitions and carnival rides and games. The decision to cancel was made after consulting with state officials, as well as county government officials, and reviewing the status of Gov. Larry Hogan’s restrictions on public events.

“We cannot say with confidence in the next eight weeks that we can gather 5,000 to 10,000 people a day in a single space,” Aimee O’Neill, co-chair of the fair’s board of directors, said Monday.

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O’Neill announced via email Saturday that the board had “regretfully” made the decision to cancel and focus on planning next year’s fair, scheduled for July 26-31, 2021.

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Hogan lifted his statewide stay-at-home order Friday, giving Marylanders the opportunity to visit retail stores — operating at 50% capacity — as well as barber shops, salons, pet groomers and houses of worship, plus take part in outdoor recreation.

It is the first of a three-phase recovery plan; the third phase allows for large community gatherings at locations such as houses of worship, entertainment venues and other places. The governor warned, when he released “Maryland Strong: Roadmap to Recovery,” in late April, that “there is no realistic timeline yet for achieving" the third stage, though.

O’Neill noted that state officials have said local fairs cannot be held through July. She said there is “no guarantee” that Maryland will be in the third phase of recovery by this summer and that it would not be feasible to plan a fair for this year even if conditions do improve in time.

“We felt that it was in the best interest of everyone to cancel for this year and just plan for the 2021 fair,” she said.

Fair organizers have been able to cancel contracts for this year’s event without penalties, and all vendors and contractors are on board for next year’s fair.

O’Neill used a farming metaphor to describe the current situation: “It’s just like having a really bad season — you make your way through it, and you start again next year.”

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