Each year, nearly 3 million visitors attend the 63 county, regional and state fairs across Tennessee. Some of the fairs have rides or parades or even talent shows, but all of them have one important thing in common. They showcase the agriculture of Tennessee.
In fact, with more than 135,000 agriculture exhibits, the fairs bring the farm to those who know little about an agricultural operation. Visitors can shear a sheep, milk a cow and even watch baby chicks hatch, all things they may not be able to do in their own neighborhoods. But they can also learn techniques that they can employ at home, such as how to raise vegetables or honeybees, how to cure and cook a country ham, how to preserve fruits and how to make compost for the yard.
Connecting Consumers and Farmers
According to Lynn Tollett, a longtime county fair volunteer and former president of the Tennessee Association of Fairs, these experiences are especially important today, since so few people across the United States are actually involved in agriculture.
According to the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, agriculture directly employed approximately 3 percent of the population in 2008, a sharp decrease from a century earlier when the number was 70 percent. As the world’s population grows, the responsibility that the declining number of farmers has to produce food will continue to increase.
“The original intent of the fairs was to provide an opportunity for producers to showcase the work they did on the farm,” Tollett says. “There was pride in being able to show the community how well you had done, and it represented the climax of a season of farming. The customer base for the fairs early on was the people who lived on the farm. That’s very different today. Now, we also put a big emphasis on serving those who have a very limited knowledge of agriculture. It’s the reason we have fairs – to maintain the strong agriculture tradition in the state and to raise awareness and understanding of agriculture for those who haven’t been exposed to it.”
Lynne Williams, fair administrator for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, agrees. She says the fairs’ efforts to focus on agricultural topics and offer economic incentives to agriculture producers to exhibit at the fairs are important ways to educate the public about agriculture. She also points out that fairs host school field trips, with nearly 10,000 students attending the Tennessee State Fair.
“Fairs look for unique ways to explain where food comes from for those people who are removed from the farm. At the Tennessee Valley Fair, for instance, they set up a pizza garden, where everything that goes into the making of a pizza was raised. It’s a very understandable way to explain agriculture.”
Educating the public about agriculture can be delicious, too. From the food-growing competitions to cooking contests that feature Tennessee-grown products, fairs promote healthy, nutritious, local foods, which benefit the consumers who eat them, as well as the Tennessee farmers who produce them.
“Fairs have adapted to the changes in agriculture as well as the changes in the knowledge level of the public about agriculture and focus on programming for both the producers, as well as the consumers,” Tollett says. “It’s a great way for both groups to come together to learn from and understand each other.”