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New York State Fair—Supporting young farmers


For twelve days every year, ending on Labor Day Weekend, Syracuse N.Y. hosts The Great New York State Fair. Some state fairs might get more publicity (I’m looking at you, Iowa and Texas) but the New York State Fair can hold its head up high as a great celebration of farm and fun.


The first New York State Fair took place in 1841 in Syracuse NY. It was sponsored by the NY Agricultural Society. For the next 58 years the fair moved around the state from year to year. In 1889 the Syracuse Land Company donated 100 acres of land to the Agricultural Society for the building of a permanent fair grounds. Today the fairgrounds occupy 375 acres and include animal barns and show rings, exhibition buildings and a midway with about 70 rides.

NY State Fair - 1909

NY State Fair Midway - 1910 -


I had not been to the fair since I was 10 years old, so my chance to visit this year was something I was excited about. I am a city kid. I don’t do animals. But I have to say that I was entranced by watching people from age 7 to 70 handling animals and showing their skills. For three days I strolled around the grounds walking in and out of show rings. I was amazed at the skill I saw at getting animals to do what their handlers wanted them to do.

IMG_0002Julie (age 11) is getting a goat ready to be shownIMG_0003

4H and FFA

Two of the groups that work with young people, training them to be farmers and to learn about the business of farming are the 4-H Club and Future Farmers of America (FFA).

 The 4-H Club has been in existence for over 100 years. The four ‘H’s are Heart, Head, Hand and Health. Today it is run in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and over 100 land grant universities around the country. To quote their web-site:

“Today, 4-H serves youth in rural, urban, and suburban communities in every state across the nation. 4-H’ers are tackling the nation’s top issues, from global food security, climate change and sustainable energy to childhood obesity and food safety.  4-H out-of-school programming, in-school enrichment programs, clubs and camps also offer a wide variety of STEM opportunities – from agricultural and animal sciences to rocketry, robotics, environmental protection and computer science – to improve the nation’s ability to compete in key scientific fields and take on the leading challenges of the 21st century.”


The Future Farmers of America (FFA) was formed in 1928 in an attempt to deal with the problem of many young people choosing to leave the farm for the city. In 1935 the New Farmers of America formed as a brother organization for African-American youth. These two groups merged in 1965. Today over 600,000 young people participate in over 7,000 FFA chapters. To quote their web-site:

“Today, the National FFA Organization remains committed to the individual student, providing a path to achievement in premier leadership, personal growth and career success through agricultural education.”

At the New York State Fair these groups play a key role in developing youth talent. They ran sessions in which young people were trained on how to judge the showing of animals. I walked in to the goat tent on my first morning and witnessed a group of about 50 teenagers being shown 4 goats. They filled out comment sheets that would later be evaluated and graded.

IMG_0007Showing a goat for judging

I watched three groups of young people, age 7-14, show pigs. Now at first, pig showing looks like the sidewalk in Times Square.  A group of seven or eight young men and women enter a 30 x 30 foot show ring with their pigs. Then for the next 10 minutes or so they guide their pigs back and forth around the ring, all the while trying to keep eye contact with the judge and a smile on their face. Since the pigs try to go where they want, and young people are watching their pig and the judge, there were often traffic jams of pigs and showmen/women. But judges were great. They moved around to get the best view of all of the animals and of their handlers, and made sense of the chaos. He was able to pick out the best handler in all three groups.


By comparison, watching young people show cattle beef was a calm a stately affair. The participants enter into a show ring that is about 30 feet by 100 feet. They parade the cattle around in a line and then line up in an orderly fashion. The judge watches them and studies the cattle. He calls them out one by one for a better look, and then places them in their finishing order. Meanwhile these teenagers have to get the cows to do what they want them to do. To hold their head up, the stand with their feet placed correctly for the judge, and to move when and where they need to go.


I really did enjoy watching these young men and women perform. It was obvious that they had put a lot of time in preparing for the fair. In fact while I was watching the pig showing, I overheard a conversation between a mother and a daughter who couldn’t have been but 4 years old. The child had been asked if she wanted to show a hog. It was obvious from the conversation that this was not the first time that she shown a hog. 4 years old!

People say that small farms are dying out, and I don’t know enough about it to comment on that. But the young people I saw were definitely passionate about what they were doing, and they certainly expressed determination to continue farming when they grew up. While it is not the life that I would have wanted to live, I certain respect these families and young people for their commitment.


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Comments (3)

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We haven't been to a real fair since our kids were young (we used to like the North Adams fair in Massachusetts and Orange County in NY...but you've just put a big state fair (somewhere) on my list. Iowa, maybe?

The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

Thanks for a great piece! I am fascinated by farm life and the talented and  hard working people who do it.

I too have heard that small farms are dying out and there are probably statistics to prove it .Over the past year though,  I've met quite a few small farmers that have innovative ideas that are doing good business. And I've seen some communities  that really  support local farmers markets. So if it's a passion for these young farmers, I hope they use their talents.

If you want a thing done, ask a busy man.

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