Ohio State Fair offers chances for farmers to connect with the public

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Did you hear it? It was the big sigh of relief that signaled the conclusion of the Ohio State Fair. For many people, attending the fair is fun and relaxing, and for the rest of us who exhibit, volunteer, coordinate work schedules, design displays and connect with the public, it is a major production.

The Ohio State Fair buildings may be at rest, but the dynamics for the groups that “bring it to life” are in perpetual motion. In the old days, and even in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical titled State Fair, farmers attended a fair for competitions and spirited camaraderie. Although we still enjoy both, now the greater mission seems to be focused on our competition for the time of the general public.

These folks come for entertainment and to experience agriculture up close and personal. And by golly, we work hard to satisfy that curiosity and to present realistic answers to their inquiries.

It is not a Facebook conversation, but a live production that captures that teachable moment in time for some “show and tell” with our audience.

A busy fair week

It has been my pleasure to exhibit cattle there for about 60 years, but our farm is also involved with the Ohio Veterinary Medical Association Bovine Birthing area and the “Milk a Cow” activity, and through my Ohio State University role, the dairy judging students (plus multiple other Buckeye Dairy Club members) manage the parlor to handle the milk and cows present for the dairy shows.

During those 13 days, the phone and text messages come around the clock with details of an animal calving, extra supplies for the “milk a cows,” moving cattle to and from the fair and the dreaded message that the parlor is not working. These are all behind the scenes kind of details that require constant attention.

The public

The most important end goal, however, is the opportunity to communicate with the public. In the parlor, more than 20 student volunteers work all hours of the day to make sure exhibitors have access to the facility during regular milking hours, but also before, during and after shows.

Crowds gather outside of the glass windows to see how a cow is milked. A CD plays over a speaker with facts and information for what they are seeing. They are reminded to walk over to the “milk a cow” area to see how cows were milked the old-fashioned way.

Milk a cow

Two students manage this activity, with one on each side of the cow. Sitting on bales of straw, fair-goers attempt to squeeze out some milk. A Guernsey named Meghan and a Brown Swiss named Sally Ann graciously allowed about 5000 people to savor the experience. In return, they generally received a pat on the head or a scratch behind the ears.

Calving

Also in the area were cows preparing to give birth. Two OSU veterinary students and the fair veterinarians were on call 24/7 to answer all needs of the cows and the people.

Six calves were born during the fair, and the first birth was a set of twins. One lady was so enthralled she took pictures and a video, printed pictures and brought them to our farm to see the calves and to share her excitement about this experience. Folks, you cannot script such interaction; it is spontaneous and worth more than a thousand words.

During another calving, a local television station did a live news feed, and even the Columbus Dispatch came by for an article.

Learning opportunities

On the first day of the fair, I realized these student assistants would learn far more than they ever anticipated. I just smiled and waited to hear their revelations, realizations and reflections. The fair is a mighty big classroom of unscripted lessons about life, and reality is a pretty good teacher for all of us.

There is no greater showcase for our lifestyle than the fair. In a world more and more removed from the realities of animal husbandry, it is our duty to listen and teach by example. Although most of the above may be common place to us, it is a phenomenon to others.

The fair brings us to the public and we must take time to have them touch, observe, feel, smell, ask questions and challenge us. When respect is established, communication is viable.

Maybe we can leave arguments to politics, but nothing replaces the good question with a believable answer from a reliable source at the correct time. So, maybe that sigh of relief was more about recognized efforts and less about stress.

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Bonnie Ayars is a dairy program specialist at Ohio State University, coordinating all state 4-H dairy programs and coaching the OSU collegiate and 4-H dairy judging teams. She and her husband also own and operate a Brown Swiss and Guernsey cattle farm. In 1994, Bonnie was named Woman of the Year at the World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wis.

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