Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2007

Montgomery’s county fair adapts to changing landscape

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Brian Lewis⁄The Gazette
Jack Stubb, 9, puts some finishing touches on his birdhouse, which he modelled after a John Deere tractor.
From sport fishing competitions and high-wire motorcycle acts to public service announcements and signs in Spanish, the Montgomery County Agricultural Fair — which opens for its 59th year later this week — is working to embrace the county’s changing demographics and tastes.

The annual fair showcases agriculture in the county and supports local 4-H organizations. More and more, though, it is reaching beyond oldies-but-goodies to embrace growing ethnic groups and appeal to suburban residents.

‘‘The truth of the matter is, we’ve tried hard to adapt to the urban influx by creating educational opportunities around agriculture,” said Marty Svrcek, executive director of the Montgomery County Agricultural Center Inc., the non-profit organization that sponsors the fair. ‘‘Our role as educators has become more intensive.”

It’s about education

To support that role, the master gardeners’ horticultural exhibit, now in a more prominent spot, will welcome some of the fair’s anticipated 225,000 visitors, up 10,000 from last year.

Experts at the ‘‘Bay-friendly garden” will demonstrate skills such as proper fertilization and watering, erosion and sediment control, and environmentally-friendly pest management — all topics fair organizer expect to be of interest to a changing fair audience.

And to help draw young people, organizers are unveiling a new dairy center to ‘‘show that milk is not made at Safeway,” Svrcek joked.

At the Milking Parlor and Birthing Center visitors will see the workings of milk production and could also get to witness the birth of cows and pigs, something that county youngsters years ago would have been familiar with, Svrcek said. In 1949, the county had 275 dairy barns; now it has seven, according to county officials.

Visitors will be able to watch the milk production process as farmers milk cows and see the milk wind its way through serpentine glass pipes into large containers for transport.

Visitors will also be able to see cows and pigs give birth.

‘‘We anticipate as many as six to eight births,” Svrcek said. ‘‘You really can’t schedule the times, but we will do what we can to let folks know what’s going on, to answer questions that we can about the birthing process.”

Another indication of the county’s changing farm culture is the recent popularity of meat goats.

The goats – raised as breeding goats or market goats for sale and food – made their first appearance in 4-H livestock demonstrations last year. Their size means they can easily be raised in large yards or small suburban farms, said David Gordon, agricultural extension educator at the University of Maryland’s Cooperative Extension in Derwood.

Meat goats appeal to some of Maryland’s growing ethnic groups who use goat meat in their cuisine, he said.

4-H members brought seven market meat goats to the fair last year. Gordon expects 15 at this year’s fair.

‘‘A couple of families are now starting to raise breeding goats,” Gordon said. ‘‘If we get a market goat sale in the county, I think our numbers will continue to rise.”

Ethnic restaurants and markets could be customers, he said.

Fair organizers plan to have a meat goat auction at the event by 2008, according to Svrcek.

4-H and Latinos

Like the fair, 4-H has evolved from a livestock-centric activity. Activities such as dog breeding, fashion design and rocketry are growing in popularity.

‘‘I think that 4-H, because it’s been stereotyped as a rural activity where you are able to raise farm animals, that’s how it’s perceived,” said Casey Lyons, 17, of Olney who joined 4-H when she was 12. ‘‘That’s really not how it is anymore.”

The organization ‘‘has always had a focus on sewing, cooking, breeding, canning or other life arts to help [4-H members] take care of themselves when they get older,” she said. ‘‘Now with technology, there’s more focus on computers, electronics.”

Lyons, a recent graduate of Silver Spring’s James Hubert Blake High School, this year led a 4-H club at Brookhaven Elementary School in Aspen Hill, as part of an after-school education program.

Half the group’s 23 members were Latino.

The club, which also has a number of African-American members, named itself Cuatro Haches, phonetic for ‘‘four H’s.”

The fair is reaching out to the county’s burgeoning Latino population, too, with more signs and invitations in Spanish.

Three public service announcements starring diverse members of Cuatro H’s recently aired on Montgomery Cable Channel 21. Spanish-speaking members invited Latino residents to the fair and informed them about 4-H activities.

‘‘We want to reach out to the entire community,” said Svrcek. ‘‘Our goal is to provide a fair that meets the multi-cultural needs of Montgomery County.”

Fun at the Fair

The county fair is open 3 p.m. to midnight Friday and 9 a.m. to midnight Saturday through Aug. 18 at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds, located off Perry Parkway.

Admission is $7 for those age 8 and up, $3 for those age 2 to 7, and is free for those under 2.

On-site parking costs $5. There is free parking with shuttle service from nearby Lakeforest mall. For more information call 301-963-3247 or visit www.mcagfair.com.

By the Numbers

There will be 15,000 exhibits at this year’s fair, and 14,000 ribbons and prizes will be awarded.

Among the entries will be 349 cakes and 127 home-brewed beers.

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