I am drawn to agricultural fairs because they are among the visually richest enactments of the Comédie Humaine within a day’s drive from my Kentucky home. Agricultural fairs in the U.S. are said to attract more visitors than all major league baseball games put together. Yet few people I know have ever been to one, which I suspect is true of many urban and suburban residents like me. Rural events may seem too boring or too low-brow, or perhaps they induce unease—not altogether baseless—about having to share space with some politically unsavory characters. But a cattle show or a greased pig chase is a great reprieve from the more tiresome rituals of family entertainment. For starters, it has no use for coddled kids or helicopter parents.
The fairs are colorful displays of talents, passions, and foibles, both animal and human. There is much skill and knowledge to admire (including sage counsel on breeding prettier udders). We get to witness courage, strength, joy, and hilarity, as well as pain, exhaustion, and disappointment. Most human protagonists are in it for no reward other than the pride of participation. They and the visitors are a more diverse lot than I anticipated. Occasionally, their looks give away their socio-economic standing or political convictions, often they don’t. I like the ambiguity.
The fairs follow a traditional playbook going back to the 19th century. That doesn’t mean that they indulge in the nostalgia of the historic theme park. They are events of our time, featuring contemporary farming methods and products presented by people whose lives are as suffused with high technology as everybody else’s. The references to historic precedent are matter-of-fact or tongue-in-cheek, not wistful. In one important respect, however, the picture is skewed: farming still comes across as essentially a family affair. Industrial farming is either absent or, at the larger shows, it is subsumed under commerce and public relations rather than agriculture. At the 2016 Kentucky state fair, for example, the Death Star combine sat between a row of jacuzzis and a fleet of police cruisers in an air conditioned convention hall, far from the heat, smell and dust of the animal and produce sheds.