Sunday, September 9, 2012

Re-county-izing? Thinking about the county agricultural fair

The Franklin County Fair took place in Greenfield this weekend, and that's got me thinking about the surprisingly dynamic history of county-scale life in Massachusetts, and what role the county might play as we try to adjust to smaller-scale food systems.

The Franklin County Fair has been held since 1848, making it one of the oldest continuously-operating agricultural fairs in the country. [1]  As James Gildea's insightful 2008 history of the event shows, the fair was founded at a time of political, social, and economic uncertainty and upheaval, with fierce debates over famine-driven immigrants, abolition and the future of escaped slaves in the north, and the perceived decline of agricultural productivity in an increasingly industrialized and urbanizing New England.  Although railroads were snaking across the region by that point, the realities of transportation and communications systems meant that most people's lives still took place on a more circumscribed level.  County fairs and county governments made sense because the county was roughly the scale on which most people lived. [2]

Over time, however, the expansiveness that fossil-fuel powered transport and instant long-distance communication made possible also prompted the dissolution of many forms of organization that once took place at the county level.  More than half of Massachusetts' original 14 counties were dissolved as governmental entities in the late 1990s, with their administrative functions absorbed into state agencies.  A handful--including Franklin County--opted for a looser "council of governments" model in which municipalities collaborate on some planning processes and provision of services but there is no longer any centralized county government. [3] For a good capsule history of these changes, see the League of Women Voters website.)

Counties--if not necessarily county government--may be beginning to make more sense again as we try to re-envision life on a more geographically-limited scale.  You can wrap your mind around a county.  It's usually not so vast that you couldn't cross it in a day, even using muscle-power.  But it's varied enough that it expands our horizons beyond the purely local and offers enough things to see, buy, and do that it can function as a kind of little world, if you approach it that way.

The fact that county agricultural fairs endure in many places in New England and elsewhere also makes sense to me.  Despite the industrialization and globalization of agriculture, people who farm still do so in ways that are inescapably located in specific places and in relationship with others in the networks of production and cultivation that exist in those places.  The continued existence of 4H Club exhibits, pie and pickle contests, and horse and tractor pulls speaks to the realness of the farm economy in this part of the world, despite long-standing rumors of its demise.

And fairs are lively places that often combine old and new in highly compatible ways.  You can see that in the program for this year's Windsor County Agricultural Fair in central Vermont, the theme of which was "New Agriculture" (something that, as its website notes, "of course is really just returning to the 'old' ways of local food and small family farms") and which included the usual mix of midway entertainment, music, and racing, along with solar energy demonstrations and a farmers market.  For its first eight decades (1850s to 1930s), this fair was held at the Billings Farm in Woodstock, giving it an interesting historical connection with a site that now exists somewhere between the museum world and the working farm economy.

The Columbia County Fair, founded, like Greenfield's fair, in the tumultuous 1840s, is another fair that I know a bit about through my research on Martin Van Buren's farm in Kinderhook, New York.  Are there others out there that seem to reflect the scale and potential dynamism of county-level living? I'd be interested to hear!

[1]  Agricultural fairs had come into popularity earlier in the century, with the 1811 Berkshire Agricultural Society fair, not far west of Greenfield, among the earliest documented (Douglas Hurt, American Agriculture: A Brief History. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press, 1994, p. 104).  Franklin County is actually represented at two fairs, the second being the Three County Fair in Northampton, founded in 1818.
[2] The scope of the county is implied in the origins of the word:  it refers to the holdings of a count or viscount--that is, a large landed feudal estate.
[3] For a good capsule history of these changes, see the League of Women Voters website.

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