The Middletown Grange Fair in Bucks County turns 70 years old this weekend. Now a five-day event that hosts thousands, the fair started as a way for farmers to compete in a national corn-growing competition.
And as Bucks County has become more suburban over the years, the 4-H Club competitions remain an opportunity for the next generation to keep agricultural traditions alive.
On one of the first days of the fair, Olivia Davis Eagan was getting ready to show a Holstein cow in the dairy competition. Though she lives in the suburbs, 4-H helped her partner with a dairy farm for six months to learn how to train and take care of a calf.
Sitting in a folding chair with her friends, Olivia, 14, said she sees herself as a farm educator.
“There are people that walk through, and they’ve never really seen a cow or a sheep or a chicken or a pig or whatever, up close before,” she said. “And they have no idea where their food comes from. And I think that’s something that’s gotten away from most people … it’s important for them to come and learn about that.”
Sitting next to Olivia was 14-year-old Jessica Durbin who also leases a calf from Curly Hill Dairy Farm in Plumsteadville.
Jessica said she has been surprised by how many people seem to believe an old joke.
“The thing we hear a lot from people is that the brown cows make chocolate milk, and these cows make strawberry, pink milk,” she said as her friends rolled their eyes and sighed in agreement. “So the true fact is all cows make white milk,” she said with a laugh.
For 4-Hers, the Grange is the first round of shows on the road to regionals and then the state fair.
Upper Black Eddy resident Kate Dangler said the fair is a great time to meet farm animals up close, because they’ve never been cleaner.
“They need to be bathed constantly, and they need to be kept up, that’s why we sleep here overnight so we can be with them and take care of them more,” said Kate, 14.
The cowhands sleep on cots just outside the open barn. “One of the babies got out last night, it woke me up,” said Jess.
“Some of them are real escape artists,” confirmed Kate.
A proud ‘farm kid’
Outside the sheep barn, 16-year-old Brynn Barnhart was getting her ewe, Mint, ready for show by giving her a haircut and a blow out.
“She’s competing in the breeding category,” said Brynn whose family has a small farm in Richlandtown, “So they will be looking at her wool and stance.”
Sheep competing in other categories — such as meat — require different styling. After the sheep are groomed, handlers cover them in hoods and capes to keep the straw from ruining their fleece.
In her high school, Brynn said she is one of the few self-proclaimed “farm kids.”
“4-H is basically my life. I do not fit in at school at all. So these friends are something I look forward to, and this fair is literally my favorite part of the summer,” said Brynn who will be attending Quakertown High School in the fall.
At the fair, she’ll also be competing in archery, rifle shooting, and sewing.
“I made a blouse, skirt, and a matching belt and bag,” said Brynn, who said she wishes her skills were more visible at school. “I would love to see more sewing and more life skills” taught in school.
Her mom, Missy Barnhart, said she and her husband knew they wanted to introduce their kids to 4-H before they were born.
“We would come to this fair, and the 4-H kids were all so nice and knew a lot about their animals,” said Barnhart who is originally from Northeast Philly. “And I think what they really enjoy about the sheep is that they’re not all the same. This sheep is the Karakul breed, and they date back to 1600 B.C. So they’re technically biblical sheep,” she said, gesturing to her daughter’s ewe.
In the poultry area, 7-year-old Christian Frank was checking out fancy breeds of chickens. His family keeps six chickens in their backyard in Morrisville.
“One of the chickens yesterday, she sat down on my lap and laid an egg there. Her name is Barbie,” said Christian. His dad, Scott Frank, said Christian and his twin brother, Scotty, have been fair regulars since they could walk. The twins want to be in 4H so their chickens can win ribbons, “but we have to wait until next year because we’re not old enough,” Scotty said.
The Middletown Grange Fair runs through Sunday. It is free to the public, with a $10 per vehicle parking fee.