While Maryland's farming acreage continues to shrink under development pressures, county farm fairs still produce a bumper crop in attendance. In fact, two of the largest agricultural fairs are held by counties considered to be more suburban than rural, Howard and Montgomery.
County fairs that once served to gather the farming community for celebration have become a popular event for non-farmers to experience the unfamiliar agricultural life, another mass entertainment. Many of the fair exhibitors today, even those showing animals, don't live on traditional farms. The small "farmette" and the part-time farmer are ever more in evidence.
Harford and Carroll counties begin their farm fairs this weekend, after drawing records crowds last year. The two counties offer a different emphasis and history in their festivities.
The Harford Farm Fair is in its sixth year at the Equestrian Center in Bel Air, revived in 1988 after a hiatus of 25 years. It has no midway or motorized rides, but relies on a variety of attractions to draw more than 80,000 visitors over four days. This year's schedule includes hot air balloon races, tractor and horse pulling contests, a car-crushing monster truck demonstration, and pig, duck and goat races staged by a Montgomery County promoter.
The emphasis is on family entertainment, as well as on farm education. Old-time log-sawing and pole-climbing and tractor-pull contests are still held, along with the antique vehicle exhibits. But the display of modern agricultural machinery aims to educate Harford's urbanized majority to the working technology of today's farm.
The Harford fair still features the work of 4-H Club youngsters, who presented over 2,500 projects for judging last year. Membership in Harford 4-H clubs has doubled since 1988, but the projects now include such things as computer programming and environmental conservation.
Carroll's week-long observance in Westminster focuses exclusively on 4-H and Future Farmers of America competitions. No midway rides, but free admission helps to draw some 20,000 visitors to the Agriculture Center.
Steeped in tradition, the fair marks its 96th anniversary with the prospect of more than 10,000 projects entered in competition, a parade and the Carroll Farm Queen contest. The livestock auction typically raises more than $100,000 for prize animals and the champion cake can expect to attract bids of well over $1,000. That's a serious farm fair.