Traveling on the Turnpike through the mountains in January would hardly be considered a leisurely jaunt, but dozens, if not hundreds, of Washington and Greene County residents make the trek each year to the Pennsylvania Farm Show in Harrisburg.
For the McConn family of West Alexander, it’s a ritual they’ve repeated year after year. Jeff McConn and his wife, Peggy, who is from Mars, Butler County, met at the Farm Show in 1985, and all their children have attended each Farm Show since infancy.
“All the kids were born in September or October, and they were down there the next January four or five months later,” said Jeff McConn Sr.
“We’ve been snowed in at the Farm Show,” he recalled about 1996. “My wife was pregnant with Caitlyn. They wouldn’t let us out. All the roads were closed.”
Food vendors, unfortunately, didn’t stick around, so the McConn family subsisted on snacks until the weather cleared, the roads reopened and the show resumed.
But treks through the snow to Harrisburg were a typical January jaunt for the McConns even before their children were born. Jeff and his wife remember that Interstate 70 was iced over, so they headed north to Cranberry, Butler County, to jump on the Turnpike. Instead of the usual 4 ½-hour trip, the journey lasted seven.
This year, Jeff McConn Sr. will be traveling to the show with three children and seven animals. Bridget, 18, will be competing with a market hog, market lamb and market goat. Caitlyn and Jeffrey Jr. each will be showing a market hog and a market lamb.
But they’ll be making one round-trip to the show, not two as they sometimes did. “We used to show breeding sheep and market animals down there,” the senior McConn recalled.
“We’d come home Tuesday night into Wednesday morning and truck back through the snow again.” The market show takes place during the first half of the week, and those animals’ exit is followed by the arrival of breeding stock.
“We’re doing half a week this year, and that’s it,” McConn said.
The show, which began Friday night with a draft horse competition, features more than animals. Scheduled are cooking and baking contests and demonstrations; displays of antique tractors and a tractor square dance; and for the first time, polo – the sport of kings – in the equine arena.
So why does Pennsylvania schedule its agricultural event during the dead of winter?
It’s the time of year that many farmers might have less happening on their farms. Spring is planting season, followed by haying. A state fair scheduled during the summer would conflict with the local and county fair circuit and harvest time.
“We do have such a busy, robust fair season in the summer,” said Nicole Bucher, spokeswoman for the state Department of Agriculture, noting that within the 67-county commonwealth there are a total of 108 county and local fairs. “The Farm Show is kind of rooted in a 97-year tradition. It almost wouldn’t be January without the Farm Show.”
Hayden Demniak of Greene County is only 12 years old, but he’s heading to his third Farm Show. Last year, he showed a champion market lamb, and he’s going to try to repeat his performance with a Suffolk cross he calls “Eclipse” because, as Hayden explained, “He has a really big, black spot on one side. It’s like a big, black circle.”
He described what it’s like to exhibit a state champion animal. “At first, it didn’t feel like I won,” he said. “It was so overwhelming. Everyone wants to take your picture, and you’re the center of attention.”
As Hayden and his lamb did last year, the sixth-grader at Carmichaels Elementary School and Eclipse will make the trip to Harrisburg in stages, stopping every hour due to the potentially nerve-wracking effect on the animal
“They stress,” he said. “They lose five to 10 pounds on the way out. We feed him a little bit, walk him around a little bit and let him stand there for a couple of minutes and loosen up. We get him there early enough to get him bulked up again.”
Because a market wether must be well-muscled, Eclipse works out on a treadmill. “He walks backwards, level one,” Hayden explained. The youngster must know what he’s doing, because he’s shown the grand champion twice and the reserve champion once at the Greene County Fair in four appearances.
“I did really good with my summer sheep at the fair,” he said, and he’s learned showmanship through that experience, jackpot shows for points and prizes, and his attendance at Banbury’s “Building the Best” Lamb Camp in Danville, Ohio.
Hayden may be a farmer of the future, but a slew of area high school students will be recognized for their efforts as members of the Future Farmers of America organization.
Emily Coyne of Burgettstown will be a among a group of Future Farmers receiving Keystone awards this year at the Farm Show. She’s taken animals to the venue for several years, but not this year. “Even though the Farm Show is indoors, when the wind comes through, it’s pretty harsh,” she said.
“If you walk through, to see everything, they say it will take two days.”
Coyne first showed a set of lambs in 2002 at the Hookstown Fair in Beaver County, but because her home school district does not offer agriculture education, she attends a neighboring school district, Fort Cherry.
Her adviser, Jodie Hoover, provided the names of senior-year students from the two-county area who will be receiving Keystone Awards for documenting their agriculture projects in three record books and showing profits of at least $1,000.
They are: McGuffey High School, Lena Bioni, Victoria Culbertson, Victoria Horr, Alizabeth Mankey, the aforementioned Bridget McConn, Emily Miller and Shannon Teed; West Greene, Mandisa Burns and Lauren Weaver; and Fort Cherry, H.G. Parkinson Chapter, Kayla Carlini, Emily Coyne and Erika Rodenski.
First-year members also receive jackets. Recipients include: First Love Christian Academy, Gregory Caldwell, Charlie Miller, Elise Perelstine and Jacob Pierson; McGuffey, Patrick Bedillion, Emily Clemens, Kansas Ealy, Samantha Huggins, Anna Williams, Scarlett Loya and Brandon Shoup; West Greene, Madison Yeater; and Fort Cherry, H.G. Parkinson Chapter, Corey L. Barish, Christina Bellhy, Aaron J. Cowden, Michael J. Coyne, Olivia M. Dunn, Alexis Faure, Colton Lucas, Jesse J. McKean and Sydney Relihan.
In addition to her trip to the Farm Show, Coyne is looking forward to a trip to the Mason Dixon Farms Dairy in Gettysburg to tour a robotic milking operation, overseen by just four employees, she said.
Eric Cowden, 31, of State College, formerly of Prosperity, has attended the Farm Show in many capacities. He showed his first market lamb at the Farm Show, has exhibited other livestock and worked there as an employee of both the Farm Show and state Department of Agriculture.
Two years ago, he joined the Marcellus Shale Coalition as a community outreach manager focusing on agriculture.
“The 300 companies that the Marcellus Shale Coalition represents have made the agricultural community a top priority, and the No. 1 spot for Pennsylvania agriculture is the Farm Show … with some 400,000 consumers wanting to learn about all aspects of food, fiber and fuel,” Cowden wrote in an email in response to an inquiry from the Observer-Reporter.
Cowden said he also serves on the board of the Pennsylvania Farm Show Scholarship Foundation. “In the year 2000, only six days after Y2K, I received my highest honor at the Farm Show – their scholarship,” he wrote.
“It is that special week – snow blowing – when the best of the commonwealth’s agriculture descends on the capital and showcases the best we have to offer.”
Admission to the Farm Show is free, but there is a charge for parking. More information is available at www.farmshow.state.pa.us.