Why there are fewer swine barns at the county fair

As family farms disappear, fairs replace agricultural displays with activities that attract more suburbanites.

Her shadow box of some 50 insects and butterflies, carefully pinned and labeled, has already won a blue ribbon. But 9-year-old entomologist Micah Williams is still on the prowl.

"Next year," she says, popping open an old cosmetic kit to reveal a number of recently caught specimens. Nearby are rocket and geology projects, and another table is lined with homemade flashlights, circuit boards, and schematic diagrams.

Science fair? Try county fair.

Micah is a 4-H club member from Bel Aire, near Wichita. Her dad doesn't farm - he works at Boeing - and her entries reflect her family's suburban lifestyle: She also brought a food project, made a bead necklace, and designed two "window displays" - one featuring an outfit she made, the other a dress she bought.

And by opting for beetles instead of bovines, she's helping to challenge the stereotype of county fairs as being just for the corn-fed farm set. Instead, these fairs, veritable mainstays of rural summers, are reflecting changes in Midwest life and getting downright cosmopolitan.

Forget the cattle barns. Today's crowds are headed to the tech sheds. "It's definitely not the cows and cookin' thing," says Jodi Besthorn, a 4-H youth-development agent in the county where Micah lives.

Granted, county fairs have always been made up of more than 4-H club entries. But such entries are a major component of youth exhibits, and without the clubs, many fairs, especially at the county level, would have a hard time surviving.

Yet the demographics of even traditional clubs are changing as 4-H has found itself relying on city kids - or at least those who live off the farm - to stay viable. In Sedgwick County, for example, which includes Cheney, only about 10 percent of 4-H-ers grow up on traditional farms, estimates Ms. Besthorn. Twenty percent are city kids, while the remainder - and the vast majority - live in small towns or on acreages designated rural but "nonfarm." [Editor's note: The original version of this story misidentified a county seat in Kansas. Although Cheney is located in Sedgwick County, Wichita is the county seat.]

In Iowa, less than 50 percent of those who participate in the Dallas County fair actually live on farms - a noticeable shift from 10 years ago, says Linda Nelson, the county's extension education director.

And in Goodhue County, Minn., there are probably two urban 4-H fair participants for every one from a traditional family farm, says Bill Emery, the county's 4-H program coordinator.

Those involved have little trouble explaining the shift. Farms are getting bigger, yet fewer people are needed to work the land. Families are increasingly moving to the city. Those still in rural areas are aging and less likely to have children at home.

"We have a lot of people with small acreages that live in Dallas County, and so a lot of our kids may call themselves rural," Ms. Nelson says. "They're not the true farm families that we think of from the past."

Come fair season, that fact becomes obvious. In the parking lot at the Sedgwick County fair, suburban minivans sit next to muddied pickup trucks. Flip-flops are as common as cowboy boots.

And the exhibits are changing. For example, less than a decade ago in Goodhue County, dairy cattle led all project areas in number of participants with 362. These days, it ranks sixth overall, with only 99 participants last year (a number that also reflects changes in counting entries). Photography is now the most popular project, followed by foods and nutrition, arts and crafts, and woods and metals.

Window-display entries like those by Micah have doubled in popularity during the past two years, Besthorn says. Participants display outfits in small booths along with accessories, resulting in an exhibit that looks not unlike a Gap storefront.

Besthorn notes that Martha Stewart-style "gift baskets," in which food items are nestled in kitschy containers, are "huge" at the Kansas State fair. In Iowa, there have been fair projects about DNA and global positioning. Websites are popular in at least one Kansas county, and in Omaha, Neb., there's a large pet show that features everything from cats to goldfish to iguanas.

But nothing says it quite like the Horseless Horse Project. Designed for youths who don't have horses, the project allows them to learn about equine anatomy and care and then compete in quiz bowls. It's a project that's popular with both city and rural club members, Besthorn says.

Although the face of county fairs may be changing, the goals of fair participation remain the same. Carolyn Harms, a 4-H community leader who grew up on a farm but now lives in Derby, Kan., says she and her husband consciously decided to involve their children in 4-H. People are often surprised at that, Ms. Harms says, and she had doubts herself. But then she saw her kids preparing for their county fair's dog show. "This is no different from showing a steer or a hog," she says.

Indeed, county fairs were started years ago to bring communities together and show, through friendly competition, how to improve the quality of rural life, Besthorn says. "That part we've maintained," she adds. "But the exhibitors are different."

And yet few fear that the fairs of yesteryear are dying. "There are some things," says Peggy Berrier Boyd, a 4-H youth development agent in Kansas City, Kan., "that have been around for so long and have worked so well they don't need to change."

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