Mark can attest to the fact that there are many things that make me nostalgic for my Kent County home, but there is little that makes me crave to be home more than Expo-Kent, or "St.Mary's fair", as I will always know it to be. It is one of the few 'real' fairs left in the region and a true treat to those who remember how it apparently 'used to be'. The original and true point of a fair was to compete against your neighbours, celebrate a (good) growing season, discuss the weather, crops, livestock, markets, kids, grandkids, family, milestones, remember those lost, take home some prize money, a lot of pride and a bit of celebratory relaxing after a busy summer and somehow, St. Marie's hasn't lost that.
Being a pseudo only-child, to older parents, I was given the glorious opportunity to attend a lot of fairs each summer and while I loved each of them, I was sad to watch many of them descend into nothing much more than a midway and some display cases. Some exhibitions still bring in a few animals but there is no 'show' to speak of and very little in the way of the public's interaction with the farmers or agriculture in general.
But it's obvious that since I grew up loving fairs and spending my favorite part of my summer at one, that I would have lots of reasons to want to be there. So here's just a few reasons YOU should go, followed by the real reason we should ALL go.
-find the quilt display. Stand back and admire the colours, the patterns and the variety. Now get close and look at each of those tiny little stitches. Which quilt has the tiniest ones? Can you tell the machine quilted ones from the hand quilted ones? Can you picture the woman who sat around that big quilt, putting each stitch in and out and in and out and maybe the song she was humming, or the curse she made when she pricked her thimble-less finger, or the sense of accomplishment that came with binding it all up and displaying it at the fair for a red, first place ribbon?
-stop by the vegetable/fruit/flower displays. Try to figure out what makes a group of five green beans place first over another group of five green beans. Admire that anyone has a pepper that big so early! Check out the names on the tags so that the next time you're plunked down at a community supper, a baby shower, benefit dance or some such event you can turn to old Auntie (whose not even your auntie) Ethel and make her day by saying, "Ethel, I noticed your gladiolas took first at the fair, do you plant a lot? Those are a lot of work, digging up and replanting every year!" or to Winnie and say, "I saw the red ribbon on your pretty felted wall hanging, I had no idea you were so crafty!" or to Mark, "Your soybeans took first place, good for you. First in a class of one, is still first! harhar."
-walk politely through the commercial booths. They pay to be there and deserve a little of your attention. Besides they always have ballots to fill out for some free draw to win soap or a prize pack of a windbreaker, a mug, a frisbee and some coupons for their product/service.
-of course, there's the midway and even if, like me, just looking at the rides make you queasy, we all know that the best people-watching happens at the carnival. The carnies themselves are a fascinating crew, let alone the vast array of ride-goers. And who doesn't love a little harassment as you pass through the game alley? "Come on big shot! Win the lady a puppy! All ya gotta do is hit the bottles! EASY! Watch, I'll show ya! SEE? Just like that! No problem! Ya CAN'T lose!" Or my favorite "Hey princess, try this one, a Prize EVERYTIME". Where else can you go, drop a few twoonies (ok more than a few) and come home with a crappy stuffed snake, cotton candy in your hair, a tacky cowboy hat, a lighter, a goldfish, and cow manure on your shoe?
-since you're in the midway, go for a trip on the ferris wheel and while you're stopped at the top (which you will be, especially if you're not a real ride/height lover), look down and think about the organization and cooperation it takes to pull together multiple days of such a successful event. It takes a committee of some of the most dedicated people from around the region, a whole year to even begin to prepare for a week of entertainment for you, and I.
-stand by the tractor display until a little boy comes along (don't worry, it won't be long) and just watch his face as he scrambles up in the cab, onto the seat, and grabs hold of the steering wheel.
-walk through the horse barns and blink at the shiny tack in every spare corner. Listen for the tinkle of bells and the creak of leather. Breath deep. Mmmmm.
-make sure you go at a time that a livestock show is scheduled. Find a good seat and spend some time figuring it out. Track down a showbook if you want. Put the animals in order of how you would place them, in your mind and see how close you are the judge. After a couple classes of watching him, try to put them in the order you think HE will put them in, based on his previous placings and reasons. Why is that one so much bigger than that one, but the small one is winning? Are any of the show-people more skilled than others? What's with the combs in the pockets?
-find a farmer sitting around (you shouldn't have to look too far). They will be more than happy to answer ANY question you have (and believe me, there's nothing they haven't heard). Or if you just want to pass by and tell them what a nice group of animals they have, it would be much appreciated. Think for just a minute about what it took to bring 12, freshly washed and fluffed sheep, or five cows, a calf and big bull. And you thought that stroller and backpack was a pain in the behind.
The real reason that everybody should go to a fair/exhibition is because, at it's root, the fair is a symbol of our food system. I don't mean french fries and candy apples. I mean, farmers bringing their very best to compete against the very best of someone else. That cow and calf in the ring is representing the best of what we are eating everyday. They will go on to produce more calves who will end up a plate somewhere, due to the careful breeding and selection done by that farmer standing there in the buttoned down shirt and grubby ball cap. If we can't support the best of what our farmers are doing, by paying an admission fee to admire the years of hard work they've put into their craft, then we probably aren't supporting them when it comes to the grocery store either. It does not bode well for the long-term of our food system, if we can't support the best of what we have for a day and spend the rest of the year complaining about the price of our groceries.
So next year, plan to spend at least the day. Take it all in and go home knowing you just contributed to a collection of the best of what agri-food has to offer.
Hope this finds you cleaning the manure off your footwear after a misstep from being temporarily distracted by the steady pounding of giant, black, shining draft horse hooves on hard packed ground.