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The Pennsylvania Farm Show: Where Farmers and Curious Visitors Meet


(Tractor Square Dancing at the Pennsylvania Farm Show)

This month I decided to take the plunge and write about something that's a big deal around these parts and that's the Pennsylvania Farm Show, which is known as the largest indoor agricultural expo in the United States.

And yes, I know that it doesn't have a THING to do with luxury, or room service, but there IS a cheese competition at the Farm Show every year, so it's not all that much of a stretch, right?

The annual Farm Show is held every January in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and because it's free, school kids have been bussed to the Agricultural Building from time immemorial. During my first field trip there, I bought my mom a pretty corsage. I don't know why I thought she needed one, but I couldn't have been more than eight years old when I made that decision.

The Farm Show dates back to 1917 and was initially called the "Pennsylvania Corn, Fruit, Vegetable, Dairy Products and Wool Show." What a mouthful that was. As the popularity of the Farm Show grew over the years, funds were allocated to build a permanent building that was known as the Main Hall.

Photo 1(One of several entrances to the sprawling Farm Show Complex)

Over the years, the facility added on, with the latest work including a $76 million expansion and renovation. Today, the exhibit space spans nearly one million square feet and is comprised of eight halls, three arenas and attracts approximately 600,000 visitors during the eight-day event.

People visiting the Harrisburg area can expect two things when the Farm Show comes to town: bad traffic and snow (it almost always snows during Farm Show week). There's a story that ran in last year's Farm Show Visitor's Guide about the late Merle Fisher, a Mifflin County beekeeper, who was managing a honey booth at the show when a big snowstorm hit in 1960. His friend, fellow beekeeper Stewart Mathias of Hummelstown, said they ended up sleeping overnight there. "The next morning, we made waffles and fed everyone," he said, adding that it happened again in 1996 when a blizzard dumped 22.2 inches of snow on the Harrisburg area.

The Sights, Sounds, Smells

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Visitors will see a variety of animals throughout the complex, from fancy rabbits and chickens, to horses, goats, pigs, steer, alpacas, ducks and more. They will also get a whiff of that lovely smell that permeates the building from all the farm animals in attendance. Don't worry though--after about 15 minutes, you kind of get used to it.

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What's great for the kids is that they have the opportunity to pet some of the animals. Small chicks that march up a ramp and take a trip down a sliding board often get squeals of laughter from the little ones and are generally an annual sight, except for this year, unfortunately, due to avian flu. For an extra charge, children can snuggle with lambs, which is a relatively new activity. They are also likely to be intrigued by the dozens of rabbits on display. While I was there, one was jumping over a series of hurdles.

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Photo 8(A rabbit jumps over a series of hurdles)
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(Love the huge eyes on this one.)

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The Merry-Go Round is also popular with the many children who visit the Farm Show.

One exhibit that results in much hoopla is the butter sculpture, which is unveiled dramatically every year and covered by the area news. We learned this year that the tree leaves were fairly problematic and kept falling off until they lowered the temperature in the enclosure.

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(This year's butter sculpture)

Competitions are plentiful during the event and visitors will have the chance to see the blue ribbons that are awarded to a variety of growers and makers. People regularly show off their skills by entering their homemade baked goods in various competitions. Judges award blue ribbons to chocolate cakes, angel food cakes, whoopie pies, brownies, apple pies, sticky buns and more. Visitors often take note of those who win the beer, wine and cider competitions in order to track them down to try their products at a later date.

Demonstrations are held to educate and fascinate, like the "sheep-to-shawl" exhibition where sheep owners, armed with a pair of knitting needles, demonstrate how they make a wrap, right off the back of the standing sheep.

City folks, in particular, are often amused at the Square Dance Competition and the real-life rodeos complete with rodeo clowns, not to mention the pony pulling contests, the antique tractor pulls, the bid-calling contest, the corn-hole contest and the tractor restoration awards.

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("Tractor Square Dancing" was taking place on the day I visited)

Another Farm Show draw is the food court where guests can indulge in milkshakes, baked potatoes, fries, donuts, pulled pork, chicken corn soup, hot dogs, sticky buns, deep-fried vegetables and more. One of the drawbacks of the food court is that chairs to sit and eat are hard to come by, so most people end up standing and eating at tables, that is if they can find an open space.

Photo 14(Vendors also sell Pennsylvania food products)

Those who don't end up eating at the food court sometimes make a short trip to the nearby Subway Café on Herr Street where there is usually a line and a run on pizzas during Farm Show week. I know that because I supplemented my full-time income by working there part-time in my 20s. Their pizzas are delicious, with a light cracker-like crust, and come highly recommended not only by locals, but also by our local newspaper, which held a pizza challenge some time ago. You can read more about the history of this quaint little place in a story I wrote for The Burg News here.

Taking along a little extra cash is a good idea if you wish to purchase items from the many exhibitors, who sell everything from candy to hemp products, art and more. The sprawling complex may, at first, be overwhelming to some, which is why many study the maps they give out at the front door to help them make their way through the maze of rooms.

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(My three favorite birds, all in one painting in this work by Gerald Putt)

I might also mention that although the Farm Show is free, there will also be a charge of $15 to park, whether you park onsite, or at an offsite lot to be shipped in by bus. Also keep in mind that they won't take cash. If you're staying locally, an Uber might be the way to go.

I often wonder how many out-of-towners come into Harrisburg for the Farm Show and then just leave, not knowing that we're not as countrified as we seem. In fact, our State Capitol is a must-visit while you're in town. It is just a 10-minute drive away and the building is known as one of the most beautiful capitols in the entire country.

The Pennsylvania Farm Show takes place every January, runs for eight days and is held at the Farm Show Complex located at 2300 Cameron Street in Harrisburg.

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