Of Farms and Fables combines the efforts of professional and non-professional artists by engaging artists in farm work and farm workers in storytelling and acting. The result will be an original performance in October of 2011 which will engage performers and audience in dialogue about local agriculture, farming, and the future of small family farms in Maine.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

By Intelligent Experiment (Jennie)

Describing the role of agricultural organizations and fairs in 1870, Grange Master Daniel H. Thing had this to write in his annual report to the Board of Agriculture (Reznick, T.):

When a large number of individuals combine together for the purpose of accomplishing a certain object, there are just as many minds at work and just as many intellects laboring for the same object as there are individuals in the association, and among persevering, progressive men, there is always a noble contention or rather emulation to excel, which is continually spurring them on to greater exertions. Again, it is essential in order to make the greatest improvement, that these associations come together and compare notes and products, that they may know who excels in any calling or department, or in regard to any particular animal or article, and how they do it; whether by chance or by intelligent experiment.

For most of us, the succession of county fairs that mark the passage of mid-summer to deep autumn recall sticky hands filled with fried dough and the nausea of one-too-many trips aboard the almighty Gravitron. We might remember blueberry pie contests and big trucks smashing smaller trucks; we may even look forward to the ox-pulling. But with the distractions of the midway, it can be difficult for the average fair-goer to remember the original purpose of the county fair: agricultural education.

I recently attended the Northeastern Giant of ag fairs, FRYEBURG, with my family. I insisted that we travel to the fair on Thursday, not Saturday, so that we could see some part of the Open Dairy Show. Shows of this kind have been an annual tradition in Maine since the Somerset Agricultural Society held their first fair in 1819. At that time, the animal deemed best cow was awarded a premium of $5. (Reznick, T.) I don’t know what the premiums are these days, but Eddie could tell you. Eddie could tell you because the Bensons’ prize milk cow, Dolly, was named Grand Champion in the Holstein show at Fryeburg this year.

The Of Farms and Fables artistic team attended a smaller fair, the Ossipee Valley Fair, in July. At Ossipee, I developed a bit of an addiction for watching the Bensons compete in dairy shows. This addiction was in no way mitigated by my attendance at Fryeburg. First of all, the cows look gorgeous. They are carefully clipped and brushed and primped and pampered before each appearance, and the result is stunning. Second, the entire Benson family is on hand to do their part – prepping animals, showing in the arena, texting results back to Ryan at the farm. I have never seen Eben show, but Erica and Kati exhibit the utmost professionalism in their work; neat and trim in bleach white pants and bright blue Benson Farm shirts, they are graceful, poised, and attentive. And then, it doesn’t hurt that the Bensons tend to do really well. It’s kind of like I’m a Benson groupie; I know the stars of the show, and I get to hear praise lavished upon them (“the best udder in the show”!) and then sit in suspense as the judge walks down the line, trophy in hand . . . and then this cow – this cow that calved in my first week on the farm – wins Grand Champ!

Dolly (with Kati) wins her class at the Fryeburg Open Dairy Show.

Eddie and Becky both have described to us the role that the fairs play in the vitality of their farm. Doing well in competition helps them market the herd, and participating in the events helps them improve the genetics of their animals. Just like at the first fairs, it keeps them informed. And it is not without contemporary relevance that my opening quotation refers to "intelligent experiment"; science is a discipline increasingly embedded in a dairy farmer's lexicon of required knowledge. From individualized feed blends to embryonic transfer, experimentation and awareness of the latest trends keeps small dairy farms afloat in an industrialized agricultural world. The Bensons' herd of 60 cows in milk is average in Maine, but compared to some state averages of 1,000+ it is small. (National Agriculture Statistics Service) The Bensons remain competitive because of the quality of their animals. I’ve heard multiple stories about the friendly (and sometimes not-so friendly!) competition between Benson Farm and other area competitors, and I know that it means a lot when their animals are selected as the best of the breed. It is abundantly clear upon one’s first visit to Kay-Ben that the Benson family are experts in their field and that they are constantly working to improve their knowledge and approaches. Despite the fact that for many who attend them the fairs are all about rides and cotton candy, it is heartening to witness the core of their original purpose in full and thriving good health.