JONESTOWN, Pa. — For Art Sweinhart of Swatara Township, Lebanon County, Pa., the year revolves around a series of seasons — but not merely winter, spring, summer and fall. Instead, Sweinhart’s seasons are bookmarked by events like the Pennsylvania Farm Show in January and the Lebanon Area Fair in July, with planting his porch garden and gathering up produce for farm show and fair entries rounding out his annual calendar.
Sweinhart grew up on a dairy farm in northern Lebanon County, Pa., where his parents milked Holsteins and Brown Swiss. It was there that his older brothers introduced him to raising rabbits, which became a lifelong passion for Sweinhart. He began showing rabbits at the Lebanon Area Fair at age 6 and “hasn’t been without them ever since.” These days Sweinhart raises Satins and New Zealand rabbits, maintaining 10 to 12 does at a time and evaluating their offspring to see which ones might impress the judges at the rabbit shows he enters.
It was only natural that, as a youngster, Sweinhart joined the Lebanon County 4-H dairy and rabbit clubs. He also participated as a member of Northern Lebanon High School’s FFA Chapter more than 35 years ago. These experiences led him to Penn State with majors in both agricultural economics and rural sociology. While Sweinhart’s career path eventually took him in a different direction — to become circulation manager for a weekly advertising publication — he has found many outlets for his agricultural pursuits.
Among his activities are nearly 30 years as the coach of the Northern Lebanon High School FFA’s parliamentary procedure team. While Sweinhart confesses that his charges sometimes come to him with little public speaking experience, he said, “I get the cream of the crop.” He notes with pleasure that, after training and practice to give them the proper skill set complemented by newfound confidence, “They just blossom.”
Not surprisingly, Sweinhart is now a leader for the Lebanon County 4-H Rabbit Club. He points out that rabbits are a popular 4-H project because “everybody likes rabbits” and would-be exhibitors don’t need a farm or a barn; they can just build a rabbit hutch and start raising them. He is also the current president of the Pennsylvania Rabbit Breeders Association, which he proudly notes has been selected to host this year’s National Rabbit Show on Oct. 16-23 at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex in Harrisburg; more than 25,000 rabbits will be competing. Sweinhart’s well-known rabbit expertise makes him sought after as a judge himself at various fairs and other venues. In fact, for the fifth year, he will be judging rabbit showmanship at this year’s Pennsylvania Farm Show.
When the Pennsylvania Farm Show opens on Jan. 3, Sweinhart will have entries in 55 classes. Not only will he be exhibiting a bevy of his own rabbits, but Sweinhart will also be entered in a wide array of non-animal competitions, including a variety of baked goods, canned items and vegetables.
Asked to define what he considers a successful year, Sweinhart said, “If I can place with 25 percent of the things I take up to the farm show, it’s a good year.”
He said that he’s taken home blue ribbons in the past with his jellies, Indian corn and popcorn.
Sweinhart considers his desire to compete at the Farm Show, as well as at numerous local fairs, an obsession which he “blames on” his mother, Pearl Sweinhart. It was through watching and working alongside his mother that Sweinhart acquired the skills that eventually honed his expertise and fueled his competitiveness in various food categories.
Art Sweinhart starts preparing for the farm show months in advance by working on jams, jellies and canned goods all summer long. While Art and Pearl formerly grew most of what they canned, now that they no longer live on a farm, their “garden” consists mainly of hot peppers and eggplant grown in containers on the front porch. These days, the pair only cans red beets, salsa and corn relish. Art frequents various farms and farm stands where he knows he can get top-quality produce for his culinary endeavors.
“Why would anyone buy their produce in a grocery store when you can get it fresh at a farm?” he said with a shake of his head.
Not all farm show entries are prepared so far ahead of time. Sweinhart waits until the day before entries are due to make his baked goods. However, he spends much of the year practicing with new recipes to find top options for each category. Sweinhart praises the farm show officials for their move to using pre-entry materials, instead of having would-be competitors wait in long lines to submit their materials on-site.
In many ways, the Pennsylvania Farm Show is merely the culmination of Sweinhart’s love for local fairs. He started out attending the Lebanon Area Fair about 45 years ago when he first began exhibiting rabbits. Sweinhart later entered competitions there for dairy animals; hay, corn and other farm crops; vegetables from the Sweinhart family’s huge farm garden; and various 4-H projects.
In addition to being the Lebanon Area Fair’s chairman of the rabbit department and helping prepare the annual catalogue for the fair, Sweinhart currently serves as vice-chairman of the fair’s board of directors, of which he has been a member for approximately 25 years.
“I’m such a fair person,” said Sweinhart. “We go to as many as we can.”
Typically he competes at three or four fairs and attends several others as well. In addition to the Lebanon Area Fair, he commonly goes to other Pennsylvania fairs in Schuylkill County, Denver, Gratz, Elizabethtown and Shippensburg. He has also traveled as far as Gilbert, Pa., in the Poconos to judge rabbits at the West End Fair held there.
In addition to his love of fair competitions, Sweinhart cites the enjoyment he derives from seeing the people he has come to call his “fair buddies.” These are folks he might see only once a year, yet he said, “We pick up like it was yesterday.” In many cases they’ve become more like supportive friends than competitors and are happy for each other — “Just so long as one of us wins,” he said.
To a man for all seasons like Sweinhart, the Pennsylvania Farm Show clearly gets his year off to the best kind of start.