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The opening prayer breakfast of the seventh annual Harford County Farm Fair was served Thursday morning with big helpings of torrential rain, muddy fairgrounds and a gloomy four-day weather forecast.

But the sloppy conditions at Bel Air's Harford County Equestrian Center didn't seem to dampen the competitive spirit of the 4-H'ers and Future Farmers of America whose projects were showcased at the event that honors the county's agricultural heritage.

By noon Thursday, wood chips and gravel had been spread around the grounds to provide a bit of firm footing for the youngsters as they made their way to various events and prepared their sheep, cows and goats for competition. Spectators began to arrive as the skies cleared, and the sun suddenly appeared to shine brightly on the colorful tents that dotted the fields.

"The weather is always the luck of the draw when you have an outdoor event," said Clifton Dowling, Harford County tourism director and a board member of the Harford County Farm Fair. "Our farmers are glad to see the rain, so it's a mixed blessing for the farm fair. But we've got a good crowd, and everybody seems to be happy."

Partly cloudy skies with occasional glimmers of sunshine continued to bring comfortable temperatures to the fairground through yesterday. Almost all events were held as scheduled, and fair organizers expected to reach last year's attendance record of 75,000 by the time the fair closes tonight. Money raised from admissions will be used to support next year's fair and local 4-H clubs.

This is the second year that Deana Turek, 14, has brought goats from her herd of 21 in Whiteford.

"It's fun," the North Harford High School student said. "And it's really educational. It's a chance to find out how you can improve your animals."

Her father, Dean Turek, and mother, Dona, enjoy helping her with her hobby.

"It's a good experience for her," Mr. Turek said. "She's learned about the birth process and about death. And she's learned how to be a loving person by caring for them."

In the sheep barn nearby, Emma lynn Little, a fourth-grader at Churchville Elementary School, cradled her 1-month-old brother, Caleb, in her arms and talked about her hobby.

"I like showing and fitting the rams in the show ring," said the 8-year-old, who tends 20 sheep with her mother.

Most of her sheep are pets, Emmalynn said, but two will go to market so she can earn money to pay for food and supplies.

Fifth-grader Tom Lyons was looking forward to spending the night at the fairgrounds with brother Zach, 12, and their two Holstein heifers.

"It's hard to get to sleep because of all the animals," Tom said. "The donkeys make noise all night and the cows moo. And you get really nervous about the [competitive] classes. But you really get to work with your animal and have fun."

Barnmate Jenny Miller, 9, of White Hall brought her Holstein heifer Bessie for the second year and planned to show two other heifers and the family dog, Jiggs.

While the entries of nearly 600 children are the heart of the fair, many spectators enjoy the tractor pull, the music of live radio broadcasts and the hot air balloon race.

Pig, goat and duck races have become a popular drawing card. Yorkshire, razorback and pot-bellied pigs, along with Indian runner ducks and pygmy goats wearing colorful racing silks, "-- for the mash" around a short track as the crowds cheer. The winner is the first to touch its nose in the feed bowl at the finish line.

In many of the races, the animals would bolt out of the starting gate and trot, flap or stumble around the course. Some would spook at the feed bowl. Some went the wrong way. A few goats simply walked out of the gate and started to graze.

"We always enjoy the pig races," said Bel Air resident Cindy Eschenbach, who watched with her children, Margery, 4, and Brennan, 2.

Across the fairgrounds, miniature horses ridden by monkeys galloped a 1/8 -mile race. The macaques wore seat belts to keep them in the saddle as they made faces at the crowd, grabbed at each other's reins and tried to knock opponents out of the saddle.

"It was cute," said Barbara Clark, whose 7-year-old daughter, Meredith, had been scheduled to ride her pony in classes that were canceled because of the weather. "It was very interesting to us, because we're involved with ponies."

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