Perhaps you’ve noticed the signs: semi-trucks on the highway hauling amusement rides or the smell of cream puffs in the air.

Yes, fair season in Wisconsin is upon us. While there’s no doubt that our county and state fairs are great places for entertainment and consuming delicious fried food, they are rooted in education.

Agricultural fairs emerged in the United States in the early 1800s to advance agriculture through the exhibition of new growing techniques, crops, machinery and livestock. For rural residents who were often quite isolated back then, fairs provided an opportunity to gather together, exchange ideas, and take information back to improve their homes, their farms and their lives.

Fairs also provided an opportunity to compare the fruits of their labor to those of their neighbors, often competing for prizes.

This element of competition is still a key component of our modern fairs, and it maintains an educational focus. As I write this, those who will be exhibiting projects in 4-H, FFA or open class at the Racine County Fair are spending more time training livestock to follow their lead, preparing a photography display, or putting the finishing touches on a piece of woodworking. This time of preparation is just as important as the fair itself and the awards at stake.

Now is when exhibitors are engaged in learning a new skill, perfecting an old one, pushing the limits of their creativity, developing patience, and following through on a commitment made when they filled out a fair entry form.

The moment of judgment when projects are ranked and awards are given is also an educational and character-building experience. A pink third-place ribbon on a baseball bat-sized zucchini indicates bigger isn’t necessarily better, while a blue ribbon in showmanship rewards countless hours spent training a once-stubborn animal.

Comments from the judges offer suggestions for improvements, lessons to take home and apply next year. The entire project experience, start to finish, enables participants to educate and advance themselves.

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The fair also provides an opportunity for exhibitors to be educators. For some fair-goers, the county or state fair is the only time they come into close contact with agriculture. An exchange between a fair-goer and an exhibitor can help bridge the divide between consumers and producers and urban and rural populations. If asked, most exhibitors will tell you with pride the age and breed of their animal or just how they grew such a big onion.

Visit a local fair and enjoy not only the amusements and the food, but the exhibits and the educational experience. The Racine County Fair is July 26-30 in Yorkville. A schedule of exhibit judging and other events can be found at www.racinecountyfair.com.

The Kenosha County Fair is Aug. 16-19. And if you feel like venturing to West Allis, the Wisconsin State Fair is Aug. 3-13. Be sure to check out the daily UW-Extension exhibits and activities in Exploratory Park at the south end of the grounds. For a list of other fairs going on in Wisconsin, visit www.wifairs.com.

Leigh Presley is agriculture educator with the Racine and Kenosha County UW-Extension.

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