It’s only been a few years since I last visited the PA Farm Show, but I was definitely overdue. It’s pretty much a rite of passage—perhaps we can even call it a necessary pilgrimage—for every Central Pennsylvanian to attend at least once. You really can’t go just once. It’s unavoidable.
For those of you unfamiliar with it, the Pennsylvania State Farm Show is held every January and is the largest indoor agricultural event in the entire United States of America. Every year, this event plays host to close to 6,000 animals, 10,000 exhibits, and almost half a million visitors. Holy cow.
Bad puns aside, this is one serious state fair. And I could probably go on and on about the high quality animals and crops that won tremendous prizes and respect in their competitions, but let’s get one thing straight: I have absolutely no experience in farming. I expect that most of you, dear readers, don’t know diddly about how to milk a blue-ribboned cow, and I’m not about to pretend like I do either.
What I do think you’ll enjoy are the following:
1) Crazy huge sculpture made out of way too much butter
2) Pigs so huge you could ride them like horses
3) The fluffiest rabbit in the world
4) Milkshakes so tasty they could bring about world peace
5) Baby ducks on a slide
6) Chickens in live hatching action
The PA Farm Show is, of course, first and foremost an exhibition of the best and brightest our state has to offer by way of agriculture and domesticated animal. I’ll always commend the great minds behind the laborious work it takes to grow those crops or raise those animals properly. But to be honest, the rest of us hardly have a clue how to turn our Topsy Turvy Tomato plant on, so we go to the farm show to see cute animals and eat food that just tastes amazing(ly bad for you).
So after starting out my morning with a breakfast of scrambled eggs—the only way to start off your day before a state fair—and deciding to screw $10 parking for a free event by parking across the bridge in the shady part of town that is the scab of Harrisburg, fellow Unwound writer Dan Wilhelm and I found ourselves immersed in all the odiferous glory of the Farm Show before really seeing it. It’s the Farm Show. It’s going to smell. And you know what? It kind of grows on you, especially if you’ve driven through Amish country enough times. What hits you most is that undertone of sweet-salty-fatty-goodness that you know will be all yours during lunch. But that’s later. I was on a mission to see me some baby animals.
After wondering around the exhibit area, we were able to find the famed butter sculpture: a massive 1,000 lbs of real Land O’Lakes butter that took nearly a week and a half to form. This year’s theme—a young 4-H member presenting his prize calf at a state fair—celebrates the 100th anniversary of both the PA 4-H and State Fair Association. The sculpture sits in its specially-designed and temperature-controlled encasement for the duration of the Show and will later be recycled into energy through a local dairy’s methane digester.
Despite my wondering about why the buttery dairy princess looked extremely Asian (not that one can’t be both, by any means; the statistics just don’t lean in their favor), I thought the display was pretty neat. But I knew there were greater things to come. I’d had duck slides on my mind for too long, and I was ready for that dream to come true.
Along the way, we passed through the sheep and pig stalls, where lines of sheep were being prepped and sheered and vacuumed—yes, vacuumed—by their owners. I’ve heard of lambs screaming (thank you, Anthony Hopkins), but this one sheep was positively howling. Damn thing wouldn’t shut up, but we quickly got distracted by the pigs. You know a pig is big when the first thing you think is, “I bet I could ride that thing to work.” One further pushed my imagination towards squadrons of guard pigs as it escaped into the crowd and waved its huge snout into the children’s faces.
Next door we found all of the fluffiest and cutest rabbits Pennsylvania had to offer, including one I immediately wanted to take and use as a floor mop. That, or rub a freshly-blown balloon against its fur. At times, I could hardly tell which end was its face, the fur was so bushy. Petting it was like running your fingers through a rainbowed dream where all your wishes come true.
I did feel bad for it, though. Humans seem to find pleasure in animals whose own cuteness robs it of abilities to survive in the wild. Could that rabbit see? Probably not, but its so fluffy! Can ducklings fend for themselves against the snapping jaws of a hungry predator? Nope…but I’ll be the first to admit surrender to the temptation of seeing those balls of fluff tumble down into the water.
While there was still time to spare before the launching of the ducks, we grabbed a bite to eat in the food court/stroller-fighting rink. Dan and I agree on the idea that people walk like they drive, and it’s especially bad if they can’t push a stroller properly through a crowd. Despite the fact that the Farm Show is a fantastic place to take your kids, double-wide strollers are already a bad enough idea and it’s folly to think that you’ll maneuver well enough through a half million people in the first place. But our consequential road rage soon fell way to fresh bloomin’ onion and the one thing you can’t leave the Farm Show without trying: the famous Farm Show milkshake. You can taste the despair in any fast-food milkshake, sadness that you feel through the next 24 hours of digestion. This one tasted so fresh and delicious it’s like they’ve got a cow on the other side of the wall, ready to go. And since there’s totally a cow (or two or 30) on the other side of the wall, I have to believe I’m completely right.
Then the time had come, the time I had been waiting for. The crowd had already gathered, but I was able to squeeze in. The ducklings, so fluffy and bumbling, just made my heart jump. There’s something magical about a young creature that has not yet figured out gravity. And though it may make PETA grumble that the kids who handled the ducklings tricked them time and time again to push each other down the slide in order to get a little bird feed, we’re all guilty of joyously laughing along with each other every time one of them slid down. We know nothing about how to raise them or how to pick the best of each of them for next year’s batch of contestants, but damn it all, we all know how to judge cuteness, and they’ve all received blue ribbons with highest honors.
The same goes for the hatching chicks just across the room. There’s something a little ironic about a dozen small children, having just escaped the womb not too long ago themselves, staring wide-eyed and completely entranced at the sight of a chicken being born. “How does it work? Wha-oh my…what? Oh, he’s done it! What a miracle!” they all think. And we all think it too.
I’m still thinking it. I pulled up the live webcam the moment I came home and watched the one that hadn’t quite cracked through yet emerge a few hours after I left. I cheered a little. It’s too adorable not to.
You may not care about farming or raising cattle or anything of the sort. You may not give a hoot about where your food came from or the technological advances being shared by agricultural experts. You may not even give a Jimmy-crack-corn over the historical and cultural significance of such an exhibition. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go to the Farm Show. It’s more than a display of my-goat’s-better-than-yours; it’s an appreciation of simpler times and the wonders that we still cultivate around us. It’s about taking time to pull on some boots and petting someone else’s prize piggy just to confirm that they do exist outside of our steel houses and fancy cars and office cubicles. And hey, if you’re lucky, maybe you’ll bring some of that magic back to said steel house’s welcome mat when you remove your shoes after a visit.
More info about the PA Farm Show is available on their official site.
Click here for duck slide cuteness. (Duck slide performances 3 times daily.)
I made a conscious decision that morning to have eggs for breakfast. You could ask me why, but I’d probably just tell you it was out of spite. I wanted to stick it to the chickens. I wanted them to smell it on my breath. I eat your unborn young, I wanted to tell them. I wondered if they would understand.
So it was with malice in my heart that I set out with Emily to the 96th annual Pennsylvania Farm Show in Harrisburg. For better or worse, the universe (read: our work schedules) had decided that the only day we could get away was the first day of the show: a Saturday. Emily had warned me before we left that we could have trouble finding parking nearby if we didn’t want to spend between eight and 10 bucks for the privilege. But then I thought about it for a moment and decided that I didn’t want to be one of the people for whom $10 was a worthy investment, if it meant cutting out a little bit of walking from my life.
So we parked three-quarters of a mile away instead, in a decidedly shady-looking part of Harrisburg (not that that narrows it down much) and crossed back over a bridge that was not so much a bridge as an airborne gravel road to get back to the Farm Show Complex. I was struck by the colossal building’s architecture: it was not tall, but it had a huge footprint, with an imposing brick and concrete facade. Carved into the edifice above each of the main entrances were words like COMMERCE and AGRICULTURE and between the architecture and the too-obvious labels that looked as though they were designed to suggest shouting, I began looking for a statue of Lenin to complete the postcard-worthy portrait of Soviet-era Russia.
But we were soon past that and then inside, and when the doors slammed shut behind us, each of my senses was overcome violently, and I knew, suddenly, that I’d taken my last deep breath for quite some time.
I wondered if we’d chosen the wrong entrance, because I expected something somewhat more inspiring than this, which… what exactly is this?
The evidence told me that it was a sandbox, but that couldn’t be right. There was a cluster of chattering children inside it, with buckets and little shovels and dump trucks, but the sand was too large and… yellow? Is that… corn? It was indeed, and I could only stand and gape for a few minutes as the children scraped and scooped and dumped the big yellow kernels around and on each other. I saw one of them attempting to make a corncastle. Could such a thing be done? It was a beautiful and terrible sight, and we soon moved on.
The thing that greeted us next was, if you can believe it, one hundred times more heartbreaking. It was a clown, all big-shoed and big-nosed and painted up. But as I got closer, I could see that he was leaning on a walker, complete with those slit tennis ball sliders on the feet. And underneath his makeup he was all oatmeal grey and withered, which made his tortured smile even more sick and sad than your average carny. Other clowns milled around him, leering and threatening passersby with half-inflated balloon animals and handkerchiefs-from-nowhere.
I decided then, as I hope you now decide for yourselves, not to let these first few uninspiring sights sour the Farm Show for me. Then again, I grew up in New York and while I’d expected something of a kind with the Great New York State Fair, I was never-the-less in a still-new country, where perhaps things like corn sandboxes and elderly (possibly sickly) clowns were not quite so extraordinary or unsettling.
So I found myself faced with a more familiar sight: the expanse of one of the exhibition halls, all bustling with visitors and displays and ribbons. We passed the 4-H exhibits and quilt square competitions and made for the butter sculpture: one of the centerpieces of any self-respecting fair.
We found it toward the center of the hall, swarmed with people pointing fingers and cameras. I had my fingers crossed for a castle, or maybe dragons, or some other larger-than-life creature carved lovingly from the thick yellow stuff. What we found instead was enough to set my mind to spinning.
My mind reeled with questions, like: Was the sculptor brilliant or incredibly lazy? Is it meta to have a butter sculpture of a fair at a fair? Did the original sculpture of a fire-breathing dragon melt in some sudden unseasonable shift in the weather and they had scrambled aimlessly toward plan B? Where did the irony begin or end? I’ll let you decide.
We did the penny tour of the jam and preserves displays and the photography exhibit, and passed by an audience seated in a sea of folding chairs, eyes turned toward a panel of judges seated behind a table up on a stage. They were eating, alternating between tentative bites and small sips of water from plastic bottles. I knew then that they were sampling the contestants’ submissions for the apple pie baking contest. I wondered how many people in the audience were actual contestants and how many were just passing through the show. If any of them were contestants… what did they hope to learn from watching the judges take little bites of their pie? What were they looking for? Some shift in their expression or facial tic? Some little smile as the pie met their tongue? Some tip-off to indicate what kind of reception their dead grandmother’s time-honored recipe was getting? I wondered how many more of the contestants were pacing nervously somewhere out of sight the way I do, when I’ve handed a manuscript to somebody to read, too nervous even to be in the same room while they read it.
We walked on. We followed the ever-worsening smell of shamelessly public bowel evacuations and made our way to the halls that housed the farm animals. For a time I stopped following the smell and started following the damned adorable farm girls instead. From my earliest days visiting the New York State Fair, I romanticized these young women – the only people there who weren’t wearing cowboy boots because they thought they were kitschy. I liked to imagine that the farm was all they’d ever known since they were just children, and they knew nothing of the ways of the outside world. I could save them. A few of them looked like they’d only just purchased their first pair of snug Old Navy jeans or North Face fleece vests last week. I watched them lead cows through the crowds with confidence, or corral pigs with steely determination and thought about all the wonderful things I could teach them, about how much bigger their world would be for having met me. But now and then the illusion was shattered, when I watched one or two of them return to their family’s stall to check Facebook on their iPads, or I’d overhear little shreds of conversation containing phrases like He cheated on you how many times? Gone was the portrait of perfect nubile innocence married with farm-bred confidence and strength of character. Nature had found a way after all.
Through all the animals were still more – possibly countless – displays, all selling or shouting about some kind of awareness. I was meant to be acutely aware of agriculture, or aware of how many every day products bees were responsible for producing, or how many children die each year from mislabeled hazardous household chemicals, or how an alpaca could be a friend for life; a poster from PAOBA – the Pennsylvania Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association – encouraged me to COME HOME TO ALPACAS! – whatever that meant.
Lunchtime was approaching, and so we found the food court, packed shoulder-to-shoulder with people seeking nourishment of their own. I soon realized that just about every single food item on offer was a byproduct of some creature that we’d come to love in our visitations with them, or else some other conspicuously farm-grown thing or another, though with some distinctly American twist. The vegetables, for example, farm-grown though they once may have been, were unidentifiable now, buried beneath layers of grease and fried breading: mushrooms and broccoli and cucumbers and bloomin’ onions. The creamiest milkshakes you can imagine, courtesy of enough sugar for all of us to come up just shy of diabetic comas. The only aberration was pizza, though they tried to tell us that it, too, was a distinctly Pennsylvanian selection.
We’d planned on saving the very best for last. Our entire day had led up to this point. At 2:00 we made our way back to the hall that housed the cacophony of the chicken exhibits to revisit the ducklings, which were in the process of being carried to the slide in an Amazon.com box. Two boys – perhaps brothers – took turns holding up a squeaking duckling to a camera, which I later found out was connected to a webcam for those housebound Farm Show enthusiasts to enjoy. The ducks were deposited in the small pool of water and milled around for a little while, ignoring the almost cruel-looking steel slide rising from the center of the pool. With a little coaxing and some supervision from the boys’ father, the ducks were encouraged to mount the ramp and climb to the top of the slide. The idea was that they’d be lured there with the promise of food, which hung from the top of the slide in a dish, just barely out of reach, and in reaching for it, they’d lose their balance and tumble down the slide and back down into the pool.
It was a sound plan, except that there was, after the first morning show, a coating of food at the top of the ramp, which two or three ducklings had monopolized, pecking happily away while a queue formed on the ramp behind them. With food close at hand, they had no reason to overextend themselves and fall down the slide. I could feel the anticipation, palpable and electric, in the crowd behind me.
I should take a moment to point out that “crowd” is almost not even the right word. I’d consider “mob” as well. I’d actually had to fight my way to the front just to get a view, like it was a Mötley Crüe concert. And I soon realized that the only thing more fun than watching ducklings fall down a metal slide was watching people watch ducklings fall down a metal slide. The parents looked bored, like there were seven hundred other things they could be doing. The senior citizens looked just as bored as the parents, and I suspected that after so many years on earth and after everything they’d seen, they were determined not to let anything enchant them. The children, though, were enraptured, and I believed that any one of them could watch the ducklings at play until one or the other of them died of starvation. They truly did have a Farm Show complex.
The ducklings soon fell into a rhythm, reaching for the food dish, reaching the point of no return, and then toppling off the slide and down into the water with just the most adorable little splash, to the audible delight of the audience. They’d circle back around and waddle up the ramp again, to begin the process once more, none the wiser that they were stuck in an infinite loop of causality.
I reflected on the whole Farm Show experience as we slowly found our way back to the exit after we’d seen all the ducklings we could handle. And it was then that it occurred to me what it was that all of this represented: it was, at its simplest, a celebration of mankind’s dominion over the earth. It was like my determination that morning to cement my place on the food chain by filling myself with unborn chickens; it was as though we were collectively shaking our fists at nature and demanding that they recognize just how many different things we can make out of the creatures of the world.
Suppose I was on display? Suppose humankind was displaced as the dominant species? What could we possibly have to offer our new overlords? I don’t have all that much hair on my body; it’s not thick or luxurious and seems only to grow in inconvenient places: not altogether useful for fashioning coats or mittens. My skin is fragile and sunburns easily, so it would make a terrible drum skin or poncho. And as much as I enjoy a trip down a metal slide, I suspect I’d wise up soon enough to the siren song of out-of-reach food, and join with my brethren to construct some manner of siege machine or rudimentary lathe with which to obtain the food that had so long eluded us.
Frankly, I think we’d find very quickly that we are a distinctly untalented and unremarkable species. Our domineering presence on the earth, quite obviously, has nothing at all to do with the things we can fashion for ourselves, but how well we’ve learned to make use of the many things the world has to offer.
I’m sure I was meant to leave the farm show feeling informed and aware of how vital the agriculture industry is for the state of Pennsylvania and the world itself. What I didn’t count on was anger that we’ve turned it into some trifling sideshow. And yet, without the theatrics and the insidious lessons about the importance of farmers, I’d allow myself to overlook it, even as I enjoyed my weekly cheeseburger or poured milk from some local farm on my Rice Crispies. So it is that we cheapen the things that we love; we cheapen in order to honor them.
Who: Maize Quest Fun Park
What: Themed corn maze with a variety of other smaller mazes and attractions
When: Open year-round, but main attraction corn maze is open now until Nov. 13th. Open Fri & Sat, 10 AM – 10 PM; Sun 1 PM – 7 PM; Holidays 10 AM – 4 PM. *NOTE: These are current times. Please check out their calendar before visiting for any updates.
Where: 2885 New Park Road, New Park, PA 17352
Maize Quest tarted in 1997 by Hugh McPherson who reconstructed the traditional corn field maze into something much more extraordinary. Each year, the corn field is designed to portray a different theme, some past ones including Escape from Egypt, Space Exploration, China: The Forbidden City, and Island Adventure. This year’s theme is The Adventures of Robin Hood! Can you make it out of the maze in one piece before the Sheriff of Nottingham finds you?
While it first began as one maze, the Maize Quest Fun Park now holds over 20 attractions! Take your chances in the Bamboo Forest, relax on a hay ride, or even go geo-caching. Or, should you dare, plan your visit during one of their Flashlight Nights and brave the maze in the dark! Have little ones? Visit one of their many smaller mazes, take a trip down the Maze Mountain Tube Ride, or even search for treasure in Miner Max’s Gemstone Mining! Also, parents will be happy to know that the park is open in the winter for their children to play and explore in the Winter Fun Barn and Play House.
Admission: Adult – $9.75, Children (12 and under) $7.75 Last tickets sold one hour before closing. Winter Play Days are free for adults, $7.50 for children (2-8 yrs).
Who: Hayman Farms
What: 40-minute hayride through woods and fields
When: Friday, Oct. 28th, and Saturday, Oct. 29th, from 7:00-9:30 PM
Where: Hayman Farms, 450 Sherwood Drive, Carlisle, PA 17015 ***NOTE: There are 2 Sherwood Drives in that area! Make sure you use the correct zip code when looking up directions!
Cost: $8.00 for the hayride
Come join Hayman Farms on their traditional haunted hayride–an experience that is sure to send chills down your spine! Usually a half-hour ride, this year’s experience has been extended to 40 minutes due to the inclement weather these past few weekends.
Don’t forget to check out their daytime activities, too! Corn maze, pumpkin picking, petting zoo–fun for the whole family!
Switch to our mobile site