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A virtual Pennsylvania Farm Show without manure or milkshakes — but maybe a butter sculpture

The Farm Show, which began in 1917, has been the largest indoor agricultural event in the nation, with nearly 6,000 animals competing in 10,000 judging events and exhibits.

Mesa Brown, 10, cleans her heifer, Rosa. Mesa and her sisters have presented their livestock at the Pennsylvania Farm Show. But the event, which runs Jan. 9-16, will be virtual due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Mesa Brown, 10, cleans her heifer, Rosa. Mesa and her sisters have presented their livestock at the Pennsylvania Farm Show. But the event, which runs Jan. 9-16, will be virtual due to the coronavirus pandemic.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

ALBANY TOWNSHIP, Pa. — Manure won’t pack the same punch when the annual Pennsylvania Farm Show goes online this January.

The odor’s one of the first things that visitors, particularly city dwellers and suburbanites, notice when entering the labyrinthine exhibition complex in Harrisburg, along with bleating sheep and squealing pigs, the collective din of thousands of animals from every corner of the state.

But for the people who show those animals at competitions there, the children who raise them from birth to slaughter, the Farm Show is a rite of passage, equal parts work and vacation, an event that hits every sense, not just the nose. That’s why last week’s news that the 2021 show was going virtual, while not a surprise, was still a bummer.

“The first thing anyone ever asks me is if they can pet it,” Mesa Brown, 10, said last week in a barn full of dark heifers at her family’s farm in this rural Berks County township.

Brown and her sister Savannah, 15, are two of six children and both are 4-H members, part of the Schuylkill County chapter,as their two older siblings were before them. Both had planned to show about a half-dozen heifers in Harrisburg and are now awaiting the details on how exactly the virtual show, running Jan. 9-16, will work.

The Farm Show would be the third time Savannah and Mesa presented livestock. Michele Brown, their mother, said some judging competitions have already taken place online, where children set up a phone or laptop camera and simply present their animals to judges or panels.

“It’s just one-dimensional, though. If your goal for Farm Show or any other competition is to win a banner, virtual is for you,” she said. “The parts that are missing from virtual are why we do what we do. Going to Farm Show is like a sensory overload extravaganza. It’s one thing to see it on TV, but your perspective is limited and compartmentalized.”

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Kayla Fusselman, program assistant for Carbon County’s 4-H program, said the virtual showings may “look like a negative,” but she believes the pandemic has prompted the 118-year-old organization to “think outside the box.”

“Our residential summer camps turned into ‘Camp in a Box’ kits that were mailed out with virtual ‘fireside’ meetings to keep the traditions alive,” Fusselman said.

The Farm Show’s decision to go virtual is also a major blow to vendors and organizations that depend on the eight-day event for the bulk of their yearly fund-raising. Pennsylvania’s show, which began in 1917, is the largest indoor agricultural event held in the United States. Nearly 6,000 animals compete in 10,000 judging events and exhibits. For the 500,000 visitors, that means no famous milkshakes served up by the nonprofit Pennsylvania Dairymen’s Association.

“We sell thousands of them, and in 2019, we had enough revenue to give over $400,000 in the form of scholarships, youth development programs, and promotions, back into agriculture. That’s significant,” said Dave Smith, executive director of the Dairymen’s Association. “Like everyone, we’re going to need to make the best of it and find alternatives.”

In a news conference last week, Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding reiterated that the show is not canceled. The virtual event may still even have a butter sculpture, which is crafted by a different artist every year.

“It has required us to sort of rethink everything we are doing in terms of the Farm Show and what had been sort of institutionalized, of just people stepping [inside],” Redding said.

Many Republican lawmakers in the state were critical of the decision to cancel the in-person show. Rep. Mark Keller (R., Perry/Cumberland), chairman of the House Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee, said that doing so would be “devastating” to the children and teens showing animals.

Keller pointed out Pennsylvania’s notoriously slow rural internet as one of the major drawbacks to a virtual show.

At the Brown farm in Berks County, things won’t change much for Savannah and Mesa. They’ll still get up at 7 a.m. to brush, feed, and wash their steers and heifers. Daily work generally takes them about an hour. Their muck boots, covered in fresh manure and hay, never step foot in the house.

As the girls talked one day last week, their little sister, Maddie, 7, splashed around in the heifers’ trough.

Cattle, like people, aren’t all the same, they said. Most are docile. Others are cranky.

“These guys can get up to 500 pounds and heavier quick, and the other animals, you can move them around a lot easier,” Savannah said. ”Sometimes, if they have a bad day, these might knock you over.”

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They also get jealous if one heifer is getting her coat brushed a bit too long.

“Not all of them do, but some of them do,” Mesa added.

Both girls are interested in careers in agriculture like their oldest sister, Sierra, who is studying to be a large-animal veterinarian at Kansas State University. Savannah, a sophomore at Kempton New Church School, is interested in being a veterinary technician.

“Mesa wants to get married and live on a farm,” her mother said.

The girls said the virtual show won’t be able to replace the social component, seeing friends from across the state who have mutual interests. They’ll also lose the chance to educate adults unaccustomed to farm life on the ins-and-outs of livestock.

“Some people never get to a farm and they have false ideas about them and I enjoy giving them the facts and stuff,” Savannah said. “They don’t get to go into a barn every day like we do.”