Jen Holz captures the rare beauty of 4H youth
A boy rests against a snoozing goat, his cowboy hat tipped over his eyes, her Nubian ears softy flicking against his cheek. He lifts an eyelid and then closes it again. Above him, a white western shirt with shiny pearl snaps hangs, moving gently in a soft breeze. Their breathing is slow and synchronized. In a few minutes, he and the other 4H kids will swing over blue steel rails and begin preparing for the day’s event: the show ring. They know exactly what to do, where to go. They belong.
A bright-faced child looks up at lights and a wall of multi-colored stuffed toys. A tanned carnival vendor smiles and offers her a free game. She looks to mom, who hesitates, then sidles closer. “Okay, once.” The child throws, throws again, again. Bells ring. “…aaaand we have a winnerrrr!” the vendor sings.
Gazes turn, smile, the child’s face beatific, curls backlit with neon halo. A winner. Just like that. The vendor beams as people move closer. The happy child walks away, a fuzzy blue toy in one hand and mama’s hand in the other. They return to the safety of the livestock barns, enough excitement for now.
Tomorrow the child will put on her ironed green polo shirt and give her first public presentation ever: the anatomy of a guinea pig. She is five. The judge will listen, nod, and ask questions before giving her a rainbow ribbon. For the next 13 years, this child will return. Each time she will venture a little further.
A gang of scrubbed teens attacks the midway, cellphones tucked into their wrangler pockets, faces turned up expectantly, blue, red, green, pink lights reflected in their smiles. They know this place. They know where everything is –– the roller coaster, tilt-a-whirl, popcorn, cokes, BBQ. They know the vendors, where the stage is, and what time the band begins. They check their phones occasionally, texting home base, checking on their animals, siblings. Most of these kids grew up in the show ring, swinging over the blue railings to feed their livestock, minding the younger kids, managing the milkshake booth and snack bars, running errands for the leaders and judges. This is their turf. Their place.
Fair season has begun. In the next month, the Hudson Valley will ring with the song of carnival vendors and livestock, and thousands will find their way back to their fairgrounds.
Every fair is different. Some, like Putnam, are 4H-driven affairs meant to showcase the achievements of agricultural youth. Others, like Orange, are all about the midway: rides, games, food, and derbies. Still others, like Dutchess, are grand and groomed, boasting rows of shiny cattle, acres of pristine heritage buildings, koi ponds with water lilies, a vast midway, and world-class talent.
The Ulster County Fair in New Paltz, my personal alma mater, is a happy mix of midway and agriculture. Its 4H presence embraces urban and underrepresented communities, technical and international programs, and still continues traditional livestock and agricultural events. And while the Hudson Valley publications typically list the big five fairs, intrepid travelers will be rewarded for exploring beyond the corridor. Loyal patrons wax poetic about Schoharie’s rural authenticity and Columbia’s green grass and dairy shows. Each fair has a unique appeal that goes beyond its exhibits; each has its own place.
County fairs in and around Hudson Valley:
Orange County Fair: Middletown, July 22- August 2; 343-4826.Most known for its midway, including rides, games, great demolition derby, antique fire trucks, arts and crafts, and culinary exhibits. Not as much livestock, but you will find an FFA exhibit and petting zoo.
Putnam County Fair: Carmel, July 24, 25, 26; 278-6738.“The county fair with an old-fashioned flair,” this three-day fair is a 4H-oriented event, lots of show animals, science fair, vegetables, exhibits, pony rides, horse show, chicken barbecue, master gardener plant sale, science and magic show.
Ulster County Fair: New Paltz, July 28 – August 2; 255-1380.Immensely popular and easily accessible, both 4H and open class livestock shows, games and rides, pig races, tractor pulls, milkshake booth, police K9 demos, wool-spinning demos, vendors, star entertainment.
Dutchess County Fair: Rhinebeck, August 25-30; 876-4000. This flagship fair encompasses162 acres of beautifully groomed grounds, a mission to showcase local agriculture, big-name entertainment, waterfalls, koi ponds, famous horticulture and heritage buildings, 4H and open class livestock shows, games, rides, and renowned milkshake booth … just plain awesome.
Columbia County Fair: Chatham, September 2-7; 518-392-2121. In its 175th year, this country fair boasts heritage buildings from the 1800s, lots of grass and trees, both 4H and open class livestock shows, a substantial dairy show, pie contest, midway, petting zoo, derby, headline entertainment, tractor pull, rodeo, and milkshake booth.
Greene County Youth Fair: Cairo, July 23-26. Another 4H-driven event, you’ll find lots of youth exhibits and livestock shows, free admission and entertainment –– very agricultural.
Schoharie County Sunshine Fair: Cobleskill, August 1-8; 518-234-2123. Rides, petting zoo, pony and camel rides, rodeo, demo derby, tractor pull, horse arena, historic buildings, line dancing, 4H and open class livestock shows. Loyal fans say this wonderfully old school fair is worth the trip north.
A pair of tweens hurry along, one hauling a poster titled “Sustainable Agriculture in Urban Communities,” the other clutching a handful of blue ribbons that flutter along behind her. Their knees are scratched, noses, cheeks and shoulders sunburned, faces dappled with bright midway lights. Vendors are packing up their wares, Administrators, leaders and parents hurry along with clipboards, cages, cellphones.
It’s the last day, sunset, and the fair is packing up. The boy hurries to the sheep and goat barn where dad is backing up the truck. The girl heads to the poultry barn, now a flurry of activity as kids fold up cages, stacking them in great heaps before sweeping the floors. Cows call as their humans coax them into long trailers. Food vendors wrangle cords and buckets, selling off the last of the day’s specials. The sky rumbles as an unseasonal cool breeze sneaks into the mix. Oldtimers look up, mindful of late summer storms.
By midnight, the grounds will be empty. Everyone, vendors to kids, will have scattered in a thousand directions. And next year, they will return, along with everyone who feels the pull.
Places hold us.
There will be no poultry shown at any New York fairs this summer. While no avian flu has been detected in the state, there was an outbreak in the Midwest, State Ag. and Markets officials are being especially cautious. Current influenza strains are not a threat to humans. The state continues to take a strong and proactive stance regarding biosecurity to keep our flocks safe.