I grew up in the country, you see, in a small group of houses surrounded by farms (and swamps, but that's another story, unless you want to hear about my neighbors catching snapping turtles to supply to the local fancy restaurant for soup). I wasn't a farm kid, but I was the neighbor of a farm, so I got the best of both worlds. I got to visit the cows and horses without having to actually care for them. I could go buy stuff at the farm stand in the summer without being stuck hoeing any rows. We could let our dog run in the soybean field in the fall without having to do any harvesting of our own. And if occasionally the house smelled like manure, well, we could always put the fans in different windows and get the swamp smell instead.
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We moved to suburbia when I was going into 7th grade, trading the freedom to do some really, really cool things (and some really, really stupid things) in a place where everyone knew me for the chance to live in "civilization" when I was old enough to actually want a social life. There weren't many farm stands or pick-your-own places in the 'burbs, and my lessons on foraging for food took place in the aisles of the Superfresh. I could order at a deli counter with the best of them, not to mention pick out a cantaloupe that actually tasted vaguely of melon instead of cardboard.
My daughter, however, is probably going to spend her whole life in suburbia, only seeing farms when we buy our food in the summer or visit my in-laws, who raise chickens and various commodity crops in Maryland and Virginia. Any farming she does is going to be for fun when we're paying for the privilege of harvesting our own berries or whatever. I'm going to have to work to get her to the point where she can recognize corn and soybeans and tomatoes in the field before they fruit. And the only place she's going to be milking a (pretend) cow is at the fair.
And that's why I love the fair. We hardly ever went when I was a kid - who needed to, when we were already surrounded by all the tractors and cows you could want? But it's a great place for kids like Liza to get a concentrated dose of "what has to happen before the food gets to our table," along with some fun.
We saw cows feeding their calves the way nature intended. We had a chance to talk a little about how every bit of milk she drinks comes from one of these adorable little minivan-sized beasts. We even happened to walk past at the right time to see a goat hooked up to a miniature milking rig so we could see how they get the milk out for people to drink, and we talked about how the guy who makes the feta cheese I buy at the farmers' market probably uses goats like these. We saw chicken eggs hatching, and hours-old chicks tottering around on toothpick legs, and adorable older chickens raised as 4-H projects. We saw rabbits of all sizes, and we discussed how the giant ones are sometimes raised for food and exactly how would you cook a rabbit, anyway (stew, she decided, definitely stew)? She petted a calf, a couple of extraordinarily dirty sheep, and a piglet not much bigger than a guinea pig. She caught "fish" and identified animal tracks, which won her a participation ribbon in the Junior Fair building, and I caught her taking it out to admire it over and over again for the rest of the day. We ate chicken strips and chicken paprikash and an apple dumpling with ice cream. And, oh yeah - we went on a few rides, too.
Is this sort of indoctrination necessary, or even desirable? I think so. I will never be a successful vegetarian until someone declares bacon to be a vegetable. But I do think we should all know where our food comes from, exactly what it is and how much time and effort went into getting it on our plate. Reading about it and talking about it help, but seeing these things up close and personal make much more of an impression. If Liza sees a cute piglet and decides she doesn't want to eat bacon for a while, that's fine with me. At least she'll be making a somewhat informed decision, rather than believing that chicken nuggets grow on trees and are harvested by happy elves or something. So until I can convince Jason to help me build that chicken coop in our backyard, the fair is the best place for that sort of education.
Also, Paprikash! And dumplings!