Late July and early August is county fair season, and I love county fairs. What’s not to love? Hot dog eating contests, horse shows, quilt displays, an array of fried food, demolition derbies, and all sorts of competitions related to crafts and agriculture can be found at the county fair. This year I visited three county fairs in the north central region of Kentucky to check out the entries in the honey competitions. Before I talk about what I saw at the fairs, let me take a moment to give some background for readers who are not from the state of Kentucky. Kentucky is unique. While our state ranks 26th in population, it ranks 3rd in the number of counties. Kentucky has 120 counties, which is an enormous number for a state of our size and population. People closely identify themselves with the county in which they live. Ask someone from Kentucky where he is from, and you will likely get an answer such as Boyd County or Laurel County rather than a specific town. Kentucky state politics are dominated by the political power centers found within each county. County fairs give people an opportunity to come together as a community and have some fun, but they also serve some important functions. The fairs are venues for local political candidates to meet their constituents. Fairs celebrate skills that are still incredibly valuable but often underappreciated in our technology driven world. Go to a county fair and you will see garden vegetables, quilts, sewing projects, hand crafts, art, photographs, baked goods, home canned items such as pickles and jams, and livestock raised on small, family farms. Fairs also showcase local honey!
The first fair I visited was the Kenton County fair, and I was disappointed because I only saw one jar of honey entered in the competition. I looked everywhere thinking that maybe the blue ribbon winner was on display in a special area and there were other jars someplace else. I looked high and low but just saw the one jar of honey. This made me a little sad. I don’t know how many categories are in the Kenton County honey competition. In neighboring Boone County, there are six categories in the open to world honey competition (white extracted honey 1 lb, light amber extracted honey 1 lb, amber extracted honey 1 lb, dark amber extracted honey 1 lb, chunk honey 1 lb, chunk honey 2.5 lb, frame of honey shallow or medium of any color). How could it be that only one person entered a honey product in the Kenton County fair? Kenton County is one of the larger counties in the state with a respectable fair, so I was expecting more. (If you are reading this and are from Kenton County, tell me if I just missed the other jars of honey somewhere.)
Next I went to the Grant County fair. Grant County is a small, rural county but it has an active beekeeping group that had a highly visible presence at the fair. Next to the display of honey products entered for competition was information on beekeeping and planting for pollinators. Just outside the building where the honey products were displayed the local beekeeping club, the Grant County Backyard Beekeepers, had a booth staffed with volunteers. They sold raffle tickets for a honey product gift basket, displayed local honey for sale, and talked to people about the group’s activities. The group also had a couple of very fun boards for taking silly pictures, which is the kind of thing that people enjoy doing at a fair. These are a great way to draw foot traffic to your booth. The volunteers I spoke with were friendly and eager to chat about bees. They invited me to attend their club meetings even though I live in a different county, and they invited me to enter honey in their fair next year. Their hospitality reinforced my previous hypothesis that beekeepers could save the US political system.
Next I went to the Boone County fair. I live in Boone County and have a deep appreciation for this fair, which is considered one of the best in the state and has been in existence for 86 years. The fair is quite large and draws several thousand people each night. As noted previously, six classes exist in the open honey competition. I know the people who won the two chunk honey categories, and their honey is delicious. Pictured below is the first place frame of honey. The most popular category was light amber extracted honey. There were no entrants for amber or dark amber extracted honey. The Boone County fair guide lists the following items on the “Honey Scorecard”: Color, Flavor & Aroma, Uniformity, Lack of Crystals, Lack of Foreign Matter, Lack of Air Bubbles & Froth, Level of Fill, Clarity & Brightness, Appearance & Stability.
Maybe more people don’t enter honey in fair competitions because the prize premiums are small. First place at the Boone County fair has a prize of $5, which is less than what could be obtained if the same bottle was sold at market. Maybe people just don’t get as excited about county fairs as I do. Next year I hope to enter honey in the fair. Since we are first year beekeepers, we are not extracting honey this year because we want the new hives to have plenty of resources to get through their first winter. (I did enter vegetables, flowers, and art work and am happy to report my gladiola won a blue ribbon. Scroll down to the bottom of this post to see the bee related photographs I entered.)
Here is why I feel beekeepers need to make the effort to participate in their local fairs. People are becoming more and more disconnected from the food they consume. Last year the National Dairy Council commissioned a survey of 1000 people. Of those surveyed, 7% thought that chocolate milk came from brown cows! Where do these people think honey comes from, the belly of a plastic bear? People’s disconnection with the food supply is going to get even worse now that many grocery stores allow you to order groceries from your computer for home delivery or drive by pick up. Children will no longer browse the aisles of the grocery while their parents shop. My mother didn’t buy coconuts, but I knew what they were because I saw them in the grocery. In the Great Depression, gardens sometimes meant the difference between survival and starvation. In the second world war, Americans were urged to plant victory gardens to help the war effort. In a pinch, people knew how to produce food even though they weren’t farmers by trade. My fear is that those skills are now being completely lost. People aren’t just losing the skills related to food production, they don’t even understand how the food they eat makes it to their plates. The county fairs help to bridge these gaps. Perhaps a child will see a frame of honey on display at the fair and ask a parent, “What’s that?” Maybe that child will begin to develop an interest in beekeeping. My husband developed an interest in bees as a child, and that interest is why he said “Yes!” when I asked if he wanted to start beekeeping this year. I am hoping to work with my local beekeeping group to find creative ways to have a fun and educational presence at future county fairs. If you are not a beekeeper, you can still support your county fair by attending and enjoying all the fair has to offer.
Next week I will be traveling to the Kentucky state fair to see the honey exhibit there. The display last year was big, so I am expecting great things. If you can’t make it to the state fair, don’t worry. I will blog all about the honey exhibit! Look for that post late next week.