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Fair weather becomes unfriendly in Howard

Just like farmers are forever at the mercy of the weather, so is the Howard County Fair.

Little rain fell at the fairgrounds during the 58th annual fair, which ended Saturday, but threatening skies, ominous weather reports and downpours in other areas seemed to discourage potential visitors.

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"I'd say we had somewhere in the neighborhood of 60,000" attendees, Vaughn Turner, president of the fair, said yesterday. The number was significantly lower than last year, when the fair drew 70,000 to 75,000 people and set an attendance record with 11,000 to 12,000 visitors in one day.

But, Turner said, this year's final figure was only a little below estimates for 2000 and comparable to 2001. Exact numbers are difficult to ascertain because weeklong passes, children younger than age 10 who are admitted free and other situations are not reflected in ticket sales.

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"I think the weather had an impact," Turner said. "Every day it was threatening rain."

The fair combines traditional agricultural activities, carnival rides and entertainment.

People who made the trip to West Friendship appeared to enjoy themselves, Turner said. "Overall, the fair went very well," he said. "We didn't have any problems to speak of."

Rainy weather for weeks before the fair affected some of the competitive areas. In the home arts department, food processing in particular was hurt by a lack of produce. Blackberries did not ripen, strawberries rotted in the fields and few vegetables were available, limiting the number of jams, preserves and canning entries, said Miriam Reed, co-chairman of the food preservation section.

Fine art, photography and woodworking remained strong, however.

In the fruit and vegetable department, entries were down at least 50 percent over last year, said superintendent Miriam Mahowald. Last year, the department had a low turnout because of drought.

Gardens were ruined by the wet, cool weeks before the fair, Mahowald said. Farm crops - such as corn and hay - also looked sparse.

Areas involving animals fared much better.

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"The petting zoo went over extremely well," Turner said. This was the first year fair volunteers set up the educational exhibit, focusing on baby animals often found on farms.

Mara Mullinix, a veterinarian overseeing the exhibit, was surprised at the response. When she closed the barn for a lunch break Aug. 3, crowds lined up outside. "When I opened the gates, it was like Disney World," she said.

Animal entries by 4-H members were up a little over previous years, said L. Martin Hamilton Jr., an educator with Cooperative Extension. More beef cattle and rabbits were entered, he said. And dairy cattle remained steady because of a program for youths to lease the animals from farms.

"Years ago, the goal of 4-H was to educate youths to go back to their farms and create a better life," Hamilton said. But now 99 percent of Howard County 4-H participants do not come from a farming background.

"It's gone way beyond that," Hamilton said. "It's about life skills development," including recordkeeping, public speaking and organizational skills.

The 4-H horse show also had an increase in entries, with more than 45 exhibitors signed up before the fair began.

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Ten other horse shows also drew plenty of people to the fairgrounds. Participation was high for Wednesday's "Play Day" involving riding games for all types of horses, Turner said. He believes the quarter horse show Friday was the largest.

Howard County also had the largest turnout in the state for the Agricultural Ambassador Contest held by the County Farm Bureau Women on Aug. 3. Seven young women competed in the former Farm Queen contest. This year's winner, Anna Schlicht, lives on 1 acre with sheep, cattle and poultry.

Organizers are looking ahead to next year's fair. The fair association plans to construct a second horse ring at the west end of the fairgrounds, Turner said.

Other aspects won't change.

People really want to hang on to some farming traditions, said Charlotte Mullinix, a fair volunteer from Woodbine.

"But it's not like they're living in the past," she said. The fair, like the farmers who embrace new technology and modern marketing strategies, "is country without being backward."


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