- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 5, 2003

When it comes to showing pigs at the Baltimore County 4-H Fair, Renn Roscher, 15, has had better days in the ring. “My pig attacked me yesterday,” says the high school sophomore from Owings Mills ruefully. “Actually, I guess I got in the way of his mouth.”

Scrapes like this one are just par for the course at any county fair, where youngsters compete for ribbons and bragging rights in competitions ranging from pig showing to pie making. Such fairs are popular weekend pastimes these days, studding the calendar in August and September. The animal shows are just part of the picture.

Ready for some cotton candy? A moon bounce? A night of bingo or country music? You can find all of these and more at a county fair. In fact, you’ll find an activity to please everyone in the family.

Even so, there’s something anachronistic about a county fair, whether it’s a 4-H event like the one in Baltimore County, held early last month at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium, or a larger-scale extravaganza complete with rides, a midway, and even fireworks. The Baltimore fair, for example, still features many of the exhibits it had when it first started in 1964, even though fairgoers have to drive through several miles of suburban sprawl to get to the fairgrounds.

So take away the extras — the children’s rides and tractor pulls, or the incidentals, like ringing cell phones and and the bleeps from video games — and what remains is very close to the county fair of yesteryear.

That’s the core of any county fair: the snort of horses getting ready for the morning ride, the squeal of pigs as the judges move through the ring, and row upon row of pies, pound cakes, cookies, and other confections arranged carefully and artfully with the hope of catching a judge’s eye and capturing a blue ribbon. This is the land of checkered tablecloths, finely pieced quilts, homemade strawberry jam and the petting zoo.

And when something new does come along to reflect a changed society, it doesn’t stray too far from the old: The lawn tractor contests of suburban fairs spring from the rural tractor pulls and steam shows; the famously popular husband-calling contests riff ironically on the hog-calling matches of old.

County fairs got their start in the nation’s agricultural past, when settlers came together to show off prize cattle and other farm goods. In Baltimore County, farmers mounted agricultural fairs throughout the 19th century to show off their Hereford cattle and merino sheep, along with agricultural goods like corn, grain, and melons. In 1875, one county farmer exhibited a cantaloupe weighing 11 pounds. That was no small feat, even for a county that led the state in total farm population.

Make no mistake; the face of the county fair is changing. Most exhibitors aren’t farmers anymore. In 1970, 7.9 percent of all Baltimore County jobs were on farms; by 2000 they represented less than half that, 3.3 percent. At the Baltimore County fair, most of the 4-H members were young suburbanites; sprinkled here and there was just a handful of youngsters from farm families.

Many of the animal handlers — even those taking on the dairy steers — are girls and young women. You’ll still see a couple of “dairy princesses” — young women, winners of pageants, who stroll about in dresses, sashes and crowns to promote the dairy industry. But you’re as likely to see a girl handling a pig or a heifer as you would a boy.

“Actually our sisters got us interested,” says Renn Roscher’s friend Mike Meadows, 14, also from Owings Mills. “They were friends and in 4-H and then we got into it.”

Animal exhibitions and agricultural exhibits remain the heart of most county fairs, even though less than 3 percent of Americans are still engaged in farming. But surprisingly, it seems that plenty of suburban boys and girls are willing to tackle the responsibility of raising a hog, lamb, or dairy steer.

“I had it a whole lot better last year,” says Renn. “My pig won.”

Renn Roscher raises his pigs on George Strohmer’s farm in Woodstock, a rural-suburban community about 22 miles west of Baltimore. Renn participates in an animal grant program run nationwide by 4-H that allows suburban youngsters to raise pigs, lambs, and even dairy cattle on area farms.

“We go two times a week,” explains Renn. Owings Mills, where Renn lives, is a suburban enclave about 20 miles northwest of Baltimore. He occasionally helps out Mr. Strohmer, who has been raising his own pigs since he was 16. He’s 77 now.

“My kids are the fourth generation of farmers and they’ve all been in 4-H,” says Mr. Strohmer proudly of his own children, who grew up to be farmers. “I’m a strong supporter of the program. Kids learn by doing.”

Nancy Greene, along with her husband David, is an avid participant in the lamb grant program that operates out of the Greene family farm in White Hall, a somewhat rural area about 31 miles from Baltimore. The Greenes’ farm has been in operation since 1786.

Not just any youngster can be in the grant program, Mrs. Greene says. Applicants have to write an essay showing their level of dedication to the project, which requires at least a two-hour commitment twice a week.

“Parents have to come along as well,” she says. “The whole family has to show commitment.” Even with your parent, it’s not always easy to get the lamb to do what you want it to do.

“Sometimes they lay down and you can’t get them up,” says Tim Bancells, 11, who raises his lambs on the Greene farm. “I’ve had trouble with that.”

Though Tim is from rural Parkton, about 30 miles due north of Baltimore, he doesn’t live on a farm.

The rewards of the grant program are fairly simple: a ribbon, a trophy, and sometimes, the chance to eat what you have raised.

“We market our lamb direct from our farm,” says Mrs. Greene. “It goes from our farm to your freezer custom cut.”

• • •

That doesn’t seem to bother the youngsters, who are already looking forward to the start of the cycle next spring.

Some don’t even have to wait that long.

Molly Fisher, 10, is from Baldwin, a rural community about 25 miles outside of Baltimore. Though Molly doesn’t live on a farm, she does raise rabbits, which multiply quickly and so keep increasing her workload. She brought a couple of different breeds — satins and meat rabbits — to be judged at the fair this year.

“I like the ones that are nice,” she says. “You can’t tell that from the breed.”

Rabbits are one of the smaller-sized animals shown at the fair. The Baltimore fair boasts a dog show and a cat show, and even a contest for decorating cat cages. In fact, so many 4-H members brought so many different breeds of rabbits to the Baltimore County fair this year that the judging stretched well into the afternoon.

Currently, Molly boasts 29 rabbits — 8 adults and 21 babies. She’s a veteran on the show circuit in Maryland, where she hopes to breed a couple of champions.

“I don’t have enough names for all my rabbits, so they don’t really have names,” Molly explains.

In the long run, it’s probably better that they don’t have names, because some of these rabbits are destined for the pot. They are meat rabbits, and they’re bred for eating.

“We sell our rabbits to the organic foods market and to fine restaurants,” says Carolyn Fisher, Molly’s mother.

They are not the only ones who might end up on the dinner table. Rabbits that are disqualified, or don’t show well, are also subject to the butcher block.

“That’s the worst thing about raising rabbits,” Molly says. “That you have to eat them sometimes.”

And the best thing?

“Winning a trophy,” says the 10-year-old with a smile. “That’s definitely the best thing.”

• • •

Over the years, youngsters like Molly and Renn have had such fun in 4-H that many return to the fair as volunteers. Volunteers are the soul of many a county fair. In Baltimore County, 200 volunteers shepherded 500 youngsters through their paces.

“Lots of volunteers were kids in 4-H and started out showing,” says Bill Langlotz, past president and member of the fair board, who has been involved since the beginning, when it was a one-day event held in a tent in a shopping center parking lot. “Now they’re good role models for the younger kids.”

Meaghan Norris, who is 18 and just completed her freshman year at Frostburg State, still managed to find time to help out the judges and compete a bit on her own: She drove the difficult automobile course, which requires participants to navigate through cones and parallel park.

“This is my last year; you have to leave when you are 18,” she says. “I’ve been in 4-H since I was 6. I’ll still come back to volunteer, though.”

This year she’s also helping out at the annual livestock auction, where youngsters have a chance to market their animals and keep a share of the proceeds. Some youngsters put the money into their college fund. Others use it for other things.

“My daughter paid for her new car with her lamb money,” Mr. Langlotz says. “There are not many teenagers who could afford to do that.”

Before the actual auction there’s a reception, where buyers come by to get a taste of what they’ll be bidding for later in the day.

“This is the good stuff,” says Mr. Strohmer, ladling out his special sausage, peppers and onions recipe. “This is as fresh as you’re going to get it.”

Renn’s father, Steve Roscher, agrees. He’s planning on buying half a pig and a lamb.

“I’ll order my sausage direct from Mr. Strohmer,” he says. “And two or three weeks after the auction everything will arrive cut to order. It’s a lot of fun.”

Especially when a couple of bidders can’t back down, and get into a bidding war.

“It happens every time,” says one woman, shaking her head as two men bid up the price of a dairy steer to twice what the others went for. “They just can’t stop.”

And in the supreme illustration of the validity of not biting the hand that feeds you, Renn’s pig goes for $2.40 per pound. It weighs 220 pounds.

Of course, not all the animals end up at the auction. Some will be used for breeding stock and some of the champions will go on to the Maryland State Fair in Timonium that runs from Aug. 22 through Sept. 1.

So does Renn want to be a farmer? Not at all. He wants to study architecture. That’s all far in the future, though.

“I’ve got plenty of sports to do this summer and then school,” says Renn. “But next spring I guess I’ll get another pig.”

Preferably one that doesn’t bite.

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