Roller coasters, concerts, butter sculptures, tractor pulls, corn dogs and everything deep-fried on a stick – just a few of the sights and sounds that draw millions through the gates of county and state fairs across the U.S. But sadly, those iconic memories weren’t to be had this summer as the pandemic forced the cancellation – or dramatic alteration – of fairs from coast to coast.
While most news headlines focus on lost income for already struggling cities and towns, a valid concern, indeed, my heart has been heavy thinking about the disappointment felt by our three daughters and other youth who spend hundreds of hours each year raising livestock for the showring – and the important conversations with consumers that won’t be taking place.
In our home state of Ohio, Olivia, Cora and Darla have special memories of showing cattle at our county and state fairs – and have honed their people skills, meeting and greeting hundreds of curious (and sometimes skeptical) onlookers whose only experience with farmers and animals is during their annual trek to the fair.
My husband and I, who grew up working with livestock at fairs, taught the girls early on to invite over passers–by to pet the animals – something enjoyed by kids and parents alike. That’s when great conversations begin.
Sometimes the conversations are downright funny.
My favorite was an exchange with a young boy. After I explained that the cattle he was admiring are where steak and hamburger comes from, he said, “So, this cow is made of meat?” Why, yes, it is!
Other questions go a bit deeper. One popular topic is hormones in food.
Fairgoers are often surprised to learn that all animal food products, and plant products for that matter, contain small amounts of natural steroid hormones. In some cases, natural or synthetic steroid hormones are supplemented to improve the use of resources when raising cattle. However, even in cases where animals are supplemented with these steroid hormones the concentrations are far below levels that could have an effect on the consumer. In fact, the levels of these hormones in the food produced from these animals are still hundreds of times less than what you might get from eating say broccoli or cabbage.
And what about hormones in milk causing early puberty in girls? I field this question often, dispelling the myth by explaining, in part, that the age at which puberty begins in girls has been decreasing since the mid-1800s – and dairy consumption has actually decreased quickly during the same timeframe. Also, better nutrition may cause girls to mature more quickly.
The most serious conversation turns to how animals’ lives are ended. I recall a conversation with a grandma, mom and daughter who – while petting one of our calves – asked just that.
This is perhaps the most important question and one that prompts the emotional story of my daughters and me crying on the day our cattle are sold for harvesting and processing. It’s the hardest day for us and difficult to say goodbye because it has truly been a labor of love – raising the animals with the utmost care and ensuring the end of their life is as stress-free as possible. And it is.
But we know, and want others to understand, the vital role animals serve in providing safe, wholesome protein for families. Farm life teaches you that some things die so others can live. It’s about a higher purpose – and it’s an important conversation.
From silly to sobering, all of the questions we’re asked at fair time are important as the Dorman family and many other farm families work to answer consumers’ questions and help them understand the passion and care that goes into the food that ends up on their plates.
While this year of conversation is lost, we hope next summer youth across the U.S. will be back at it – showing off their hard work, making memories and meaningful connections.