If you are a born and bred keeper of livestock, there are certain rights of passage that our agricultural system expects you to participate in. One of these is the annual cycle of county-based livestock breeding competitions we’ve come to celebrate in the form of county fairs.
For those not in the know, agriculturally driven counties have a strong tradition of holding summer convenings, where farmers get together in common spaces to compare their outputs, eat some fried junk food, and yuk it up in overalls and cowboy hats. (My people tend toward overalls, which we pronounce “over-hauls.”) The county fair is a celebrated institution. It’s an outgrowth of the kind of mindset that’s driven to grow more food, raise “better” breeding stock, use science and the understanding of genetics to learn from one another, and show off what we do on our individual farms.
Knowing our history is key to understanding how things work in the modern world. One-hundred-plus years ago, the country life movement helped inject professionalization, scientific inquiry, and educated competition into our agricultural system. The county fair is part of that great legacy as are the county-based, university-educated professionals who would live and work throughout the rural population, helping train a new generation of farmers. County-extension programs, as well as 4H, FFA, and other groups represent this history today.
My two boys, and my nieces and nephews, take part in our local 4H scene. As a family, we have a longstanding history of participating in and supporting the Bates County Fair, in Bates County, Missouri. It really is a sight to behold. Dozens and dozens of local youth work with their families to produce projects and livestock that demonstrate our agricultural capacity. There are contests for vegetable production, hog production, beef production, quilting, woodworking, jam making, photography, and even singing/performance art to wow the parents and grandparents.
The whole system is a beautiful conglomeration of hard work and community-minded spirit. It’s got some publicly financed support (that’s the university-driven outreach and extension system), but the primary driver is farmers and rural businesses working hard to create an event that serves and promotes youth entrepreneurship. Parents, grandparents, and small business owners have a stake in supporting the next generation of farmers.
This year my boys will be showing off their farming chops by participating in the goat- and swine-production contests. They’ll also be raising potatoes and tomatoes and peppers. And taking some photos, too.
Do we expect to win? No. Winning generally means spending thousands of dollars on breeding stock and high-powered feeds. We are in it for the experience rather than the competition side of the equation. I’m just glad they want to participate in the continuing agricultural legacy of the county fair system.
Plus, they have chores to accomplish every day. My boys are athletic and academic in nature. I was the same way. As farmers, we have to find ways to entice our young people to round out their education with daily activities that demonstrate a different way of living. Do your geometry. Work on your soccer footwork. But also feed your pig and make sure it has clean water.
It’s not the only way to live in the modern world. But it can connect you to a very basic human need to feed ourselves and our community with food. There’s a lot to be said about the mess of agriculture and its discontents related to fossil-fuel dependency and resource consumption. But there’s also a lot to say about a kid forming a bond with a growing goat or a gilt (a female but not-yet-mothering pig). It’s a real-life connection with a growing and breathing creature that depends on us for its sustenance.
I don’t particularly care whether my kids end up winning the county fair or not. Mostly, I care that my kids understand the annual cycle of living and dying and utilizing our resources responsibly. I care that they make a connection with the living creatures around us. I care that they care about the animals and plants here on the tallgrass prairies and the bottomland hardwoods that surround us.
Bryce Oates is a farmer, father, writer, and conservationist in West Missouri. He lives and works on his family’s multigenerational farm, tending cattle, sheep, goats, and organic vegetables. His goals in life are simple: to wake up before the sun, catch a couple of fish, turn the compost pile, dig potatoes, and sit by the fire in the evening, watching the fireflies mimic the stars.