New York State Fair connects farmers, fresh produce and eager buyers

CEW-MR-3-State Fair1by Pat Malin
SYRACUSE, NY — Jo Ellen Saumier and Kirby Selkirk, a pair of sheep farmers from Chateaugay, NY, near the Canadian border, took special pains to get to the New York State Fair on Aug. 27.
That day was designated as “Beef Day” and also “Senior’s Day,” but that wasn’t what attracted the duo. They traveled 200 miles, just to volunteer that day at the Farmer’s Market Federation of New York booth and to sell produce from farmers other than themselves.
This year, fresh farm produce occupied a large and prominent stand just inside the gate at the fair. It seemed like an “a-ha” moment for the NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets. Farmers and consumers alike might have asked what took the fair and state officials so long to see the obvious connection.
The fair, which ran from Aug. 22-Sept. 2, had developed a new theme which was called “Sharing the Bounty and Pride of New York.” The theme was created by Kathy Denman of Syracuse and chosen during a contest. It was used during a statewide marketing and public relations campaign aimed at promoting the Great New York State Fair.
From 9-to-5 daily for two weeks, the Ag Department’s New York Fresh Connect staff set up a rolling kitchen in a truck and offered food samples. It also put up large banners to draw attention to the adjoining farmer’s market.
Galena Ojien of Phoenix, NY, who worked in the mobile kitchen, said there has been a farmer’s market at previous fairs. However, this was the first time the agriculture department brought its mobile unit here “to increase awareness of local produce and healthy eating.”
Saumier and Selkirk represented the federation’s board of directors. Saumier took a few minutes out from selling peppers, squash and other colorful vegetables and fruits, and noted how the Farmers Market Federation is helpful to all farmers statewide. The federation maintains a database of known farmers markets within the state, as well as a listing of farmers/vendors, market resources, and associates who are registered with the federation.
The federation publishes a calendar of events, workshops, and webinars and other events of interest to the farming community. Saumier, who owns 80 sheep and 120 lambs, sells her meat in farmer’s markets every week in Saranac Lake and Keene Valley. She said one of the advantages of belonging to the federation is that it helps farmers process transactions efficiently and quickly with electronic devices.
“They provide the equipment so we can accept food stamps,” she said, referring to the Electronic Benefit Transfer.
In addition to the farmer’s market, there were many Pride of New York tents and vendors scattered throughout the fairgrounds highlighting New York beer, wine, milk, honey, cheese and fine restaurant food.
Roosters crowing all the way from California to NY
Dwayne Smith journeyed from Lancaster, CA, just to show prize Silver Phoenix roosters at the New York State Fair. However, he did it as a favor to his father, Lou Smith. “My dad has 300 chickens on a 75-acre lot near Parish (NY),” he said.
Dwayne Smith was born and raised near Central Square, outside of Syracuse. He now works as a youth minister at a church in Lancaster, but he times his two-week vacation to coincide with the fair back home. “I keep some of my roosters at dad’s place and he keeps some of his in California. We’re both bi-coastal!”
Farming is a long tradition in his family. “My grandfather had a dairy farm, but also raised chickens, and sold eggs and birds,” Smith explained. “I can remember when I about three years-old, my grandfather would take me to the barn to see his chickens. I used to compete in the 4-H poultry shows.”
“I like to come to the fair and talk with people about what I love, and they don’t think I’m crazy,” he added.
He has also raised rabbits, goats and pigeons, but the roosters are now his specialty. He has come to appreciate the intelligence of his birds. They engage in precise “social interactions,” something that humans call the “pecking order,” he observed.
One of his fellow exhibitors at the fair was Randy Brouillette of Waterville, NY, who displayed his ducks. “Randy used to judge me when I was in 4-H,” Smith noted. “This year, I judged the juniors in 4-H on showmanship and Randy judged the seniors. What I like about 4-H is that it teaches (kids) to be confident and outgoing, skills I can use in the real world. I went to 4-H to learn about things. Now I teach quilting to 4-H classes. They should know that 4-H is not just about animals.”
Rabbits and more rabbits…
It all started with one rabbit and… Well, you know the rest of the story. Even though there was no immediate rabbit explosion, Karen Bailey’s story is somewhat typical of rabbit breeders.
She did start with one rabbit from a pet shop in Philadelphia, PA, in 1989, which was a gift from her nephew. She fell in love with the cuddly creature, but her heart was predictably broken when the rabbit died a few years later. Then she went out and bought a French Angora and another, and only then she did find herself hopelessly surrounded by a warren of bunnies.
That’s when Karen and Jack Bailey left the big city for the wide-open spaces in upstate New York. She studied Angoras, groomed them to perfection, began breeding them and joined the New York State Angora Club to draw on the expertise of others.
Jack, feeling outnumbered, decided to join them rather than beat them and became active in the Angora Club, too. Now the Angelic Angoras of Lyons are the toast of the New York State Fair. The Baileys’ Angoras won best in show again at the fair in late August.
Jillian, an 11 and 3/4 pound doe, got best in show last year. This year, the honor was bestowed on her sister, Jewel, a 12-pounder.
Karen Bailey said she brought 18 angoras to the fair, including New Zealand blue-eyed meat rabbits and black Angoras, which actually don’t qualify for the show (only white rabbits are judged). She even demonstrated spinning.
The Angoras’ wool is collected three times a year. “It’s a whole cottage industry,” said Jack. “We all spin; even I spin.”
He added that the Angora business “(is) very family-oriented. We travel and meet a lot of good people through our hobby. We try to be there to support (new) members.”  The business might have one drawback. Despite their large number of rabbits, the Baileys have difficulty letting their bunnies go. “They’re like our children,” he said. “We want to be sure they go to good homes.”

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