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Sheep Thrills

It's not just country folk who flock to the Pennsylvania Farm Show.

By Christine H. O'Toole
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, December 31, 2003; Page C02

At 6:15 on the evening of Jan. 15, thousands of people will gather happily in Harrisburg to simultaneously flap their arms, duck their heads, bend their knees and gyrate in a herculean quest to break the world record for number of people doing the chicken dance at the same time. Now that's entertainment -- ag style.

Chicken dancers and chickens genuine, big-time rodeo, squash as big as Schwarzenegger's biceps, sweet-faced kids leading sweeter-faced cows, and house-high threshers that would dwarf your neighbor's Hummer all come together in the annual agri-fest known as the Pennsylvania Farm Show, an indoor state fair that rings in the new year in Pennsylvania's capital. Pennsylvania has some 60,000 genuine farm families. All of them could be at the 2004 Farm Show, to be held Jan. 10-17, and they could still be outnumbered.

The yearly Farm Show near Harrisburg shows off Pennsylvania's best, from real horses to cows made of butter. (Photos The Pennsylvania Farm Show)

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Four hundred thousand people -- more than 50,000 a day -- attended last year's show. That means a lot of city slickers -- like me -- in addition to those who can actually differentiate a Holstein from a hog. It's all in one place, at the 16-acre Farm Show Complex, and it's all free.

Some of the regulars here are serious breeders who prep year-round for the lucrative livestock and produce competitions. Some are exhibitors, like the guys from Select Sires Reproductive Specialists (the firm's mesh baseball caps were an instant sellout last year). But I'll bet most other visitors were there because, after a few holiday weeks of nonstop eating, relatives and virus-swapping, they just needed to Get Out of the House. Cute little animals? Big machines? Throw those kids in the stroller.

I arrived at last January's Farm Show on a cold Friday morning, descending from the parking shuttle to confront the huge fiberglass udders of a 20-foot cow (a statue provided by Turkey Hill Ice Cream). The program promised 12 hours of events, from Supreme Championship Swine to Edible Nuts; an auctioneers' calling contest, team cattle penning and the Shoofly Cake competition.

The 21st annual sheep-to-shawl contest beckoned. The polka dance demonstration invited all comers. The Nubian dairy goats sounded vaguely exotic, but the cattle were lowing. Loudly. In the Large Arena, bulls strutted their stuff for an appreciative crowd. "That's a superstructured bull," boomed the emcee. "He's got a big top, tremendous strength and good agility" -- this, of a half-ton animal that barely budged when prodded by a six-foot steel rod.

"What's that breed?" I asked the young father next to me. He smiled confidently. "I have absolutely no idea," he replied, as his toddler hurdled the seats. Evidently I wasn't the only rube in the house.

The guy wasn't necessarily oblivious, just tired. The arena seats are the only place to sit in the building. If you want to get off your feet, you've got no choice but to watch the judging and the Farm Show queens, in tiaras and sashes, hand out prizes.

I edged next to a man with the relaxed, hands-in-back-pockets look of a gentleman farmer. I was looking for help on differentiating a Brown Swiss from a Jersey. "Excuse me -- " I began. "Sorry," he replied cheerfully. "I can't tell any of 'em apart."

In the junior categories, teenage contestants primped their animals to the high gloss of "American Idol" wannabes. A handler's best friend seemed to be Cattle Sheen, a spray-on cosmetic for hides. And every kid came to the ring armed with a roll of paper towels, for frantic swiping when -- well, when the excitement of the ring overwhelmed their charges.

Along the crowded corridor, dads dug into their pockets for $5 bills so their sons could try the mechanical bull. They may have been fantasizing about the professional rodeo finals held the final three nights of the show.

Those too timid to ride the mechanical bull could still look the part. With souvenir Stetsons and belt buckles, they saddled up on Top Gun, a stationary stuffed longhorn available for photo ops at $5 a shot. (Top Gun was "available for any occasion," advised a sign placed at his hooves.)

As a finicky non-farmer, I have to mention The Smell. I can report that it was totally tolerable, except perhaps in the Main Hall, which did smell, well, like a barn -- a well-kept barn, but not a spot for the allergy-challenged. But the animals were practically steam-cleaned, and their surroundings were immaculate. The sheep were velvety -- better than plush. The goats were immaculate. The pigs, too. The blue-ribbon winner, dozing in her pen, was polished to perfection, down to her pale eyelashes and manicured trotters.

The dairy business got plenty of attention, in cattle competition and in the 800-pound butter sculpture of a Holstein, by artist Jim Victor. The artist had carved a few scenic illustrations onto her slippery hide: cowboys, farm panoramas, even a pretty good cameo of then-governor Mark Schweiker on a rear, uh, flank. No hot biscuits permitted: This creation was safely refrigerated in a huge glass case in the main lobby.

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