HARRISBURG, Pa. — Despite record low temperatures, the Pennsylvania Farm Show drew crowds to the state capital this week that were expected to total 10 times the city’s normal population.
Some of the exhibitors came to pit their agricultural skills against others across the state, others to promote and justify their way of life to an inquisitive public that is increasingly distant from food production.
By now, the show is coming to a close, but the Farm Show Complex has been bustling since at least Jan. 3, the day before the show technically opened to the public.
Youths were already walking the show rings with beef cattle, pigs and goats that day, and the winning vegetables had been marked with rosettes. Many FFA displays were in place, including Troy FFA’s, which featured a rotating replica of a vertical farming setup.
Brittani Hook of Lewisburg was waiting her turn to bring her pigs and cross-bred sheep into the livestock barn. The 17-year-old has been showing for nine years, and this was her third at the Farm Show.
Hook, who shows with a team of four other girls, exhibited the grand champion market lamb on Sunday.
She said she appreciates being able to see the different types of animals and meet new people, despite the amount of time she and other entrants put into their animals.
“It takes a lot of hard work to be able to compete,” she said.
The members of Tyrone FFA also put a lot of work into the research projects they were presenting.
Jack Murtagh and Mike Cherry have been studying cover crops’ effectiveness at replenishing soil nutrients over the winter. They have been taking soil samples and will continue to do so through the end of winter.
“We’re testing for N, P and K,” Jack said, the chemical symbols rolling naturally off his tongue.
The two have not collected any soil samples recently because the ground is frozen.
“It’s a little hard” to get samples right now, Mike admitted.
Gage Light, Jack and Mike’s comrade from Tyrone, is working on his own optimized deer feed. Gage researched the minerals the big-name companies use and set out several choices in the woods.
He used trail cameras to track bucks, counting points and evaluating body composition. He calculated antler growth over four months in the summer.
Gage acknowledged it is difficult to know if the deer are only patronizing one of his feed sources.
To add some control to the experiment, “I tried to go somewhere I don’t think anyone hunts,” he said.
That means he went deep — four miles — into the woods to place his feeders.
Speaking at the opening of the Today’s Agriculture exhibit, which is now in its third year, state Secretary of Agriculture George Greig said the installation teaches the Farm Show’s half-million or so visitors about advances in farm technology and crop production.
“It’s very much needed in today’s world,” Greig said.
Sam Kieffer, government affairs director at the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, agreed. Now that the U.S. population is concentrated in urban areas, few people would otherwise get to learn about the “creature comforts for animals” and conservation projects farmers implement, he said.
Today’s Ag simulates an actual farm setting, with a barn, tractors, crops in soil and a crowd-pleasing array of livestock.
This year, the Today’s Ag exhibit added information about genetically modified foods and Marcellus shale, addressing two of the hottest topics in Pennsylvania agriculture, PennAg President Doreen Dickson said.
“A lot of people don’t ever get to meet a farmer, so it’s really special,” Lisa Perrin Dubravec, senior industry image and relations manager at the Mid-Atlantic Dairy Association, said of the Today’s Ag exhibit.
Perrin Dubravec and Laura England, the association’s executive vice president of communications, were on hand at the exhibit to answer visitors’ questions. They also helped line up dairy farmers to speak throughout the week at the exhibit, for which the association is one of many sponsors.
One key message the public needs to hear is that dairy farmers take good care of their animals.
“It doesn’t matter the size of the farm,” England said. “Dairy farmers are real people like everyone else.” They want to provide quality food to their families.
Many visitors have thought in the past that the dairy replacement calf on display is a veal calf, Perrin Dubravec said. The calf gets its own pen and calf hutch.
This year, the replacement calf was a Red and White heifer calf born in October.
The farmer “picked her because she’s cute,” said Emily Yeiser of the Center for Dairy Excellence.
The calf also was old enough to handle the cooler temperatures of Farm Show, and the coloration makes her a “nice talking point for the public” who may be more familiar with black and white Holsteins, Yeiser said.
To further involve the public, the dairy display ran a name-the-calf contest. The names were submitted online, and the winner will receive a year’s supply of Turkey Hill ice cream, Perrin Dubravec said.
In the very early running — 15 minutes after the exhibit opened — the name Ginger was leading the poll with two votes. Scoop and Primrose had none.
The emphasis on animal care extends to swine, said Mike Pierdon, an Elizabethtown veterinarian who runs Lancaster Swine Health Services.
His main message for visitors to the Today’s Ag exhibit was that “modern pig farming has achieved excellence in producing pork that is safe” for consumers while maintaining a clean, comfortable environment for the animals and growing pigs efficiently, he said.
Care is especially important for the pigs that are on display at the Today’s Ag exhibit. Swine farming is known for its emphasis on biocontrol, but the Farm Show animals will be exposed to thousands of visitors over the course of the show.
Care “starts at the farm,” as all the animals are checked before being brought in, Pierdon said. Vets and producers check on the animals throughout the day.
“There’s enough of us around that we can always respond quickly” to any issues, he said.
Pierdon has been volunteering at the Farm Show to talk about swine since before the inception of Today’s Ag.
“It’s always fun to go out and meet people, and talk to them about farming,” he said.
Just outside the Today’s Ag exhibit, Bonita Whalen was manning the booth for Kencove Farm Fence Supplies. Whalen has been a vendor representative at the Farm Show for more than 20 years.
“It’s grown much larger. It’s much more diverse,” she said of the show.
At the same time, the show’s emphasis has shifted somewhat from large equipment to other agricultural practices, but there are “still very good questions and large crowds,” she said.
Though Whalen largely serves the Farm Show’s many farmer attendees, she also gets to interact with retail customers, the nonfarmers who want to put fences on their properties — “anything to keep animals contained or deterred,” she said.
Whalen and her co-workers generally work 12-hour days, but she does not mind. The Kencove booth is steps away from the food court.
Whalen’s favorites are the roast beef sandwich with fresh horseradish, the chicken breast sandwich, “and nobody can surpass the baked potato,” she said.