Overheard on opening day at the Howard County Fair, for 35 years one of central Maryland's leading agricultural celebrations:

Exuberant daughter to flustered mother: "Mommy, Mommy! Let's go into that barn! There are lambs and pigs in there!"

Mother: "We can see the lambs, dear, but not the pigs. Pigs are gross."

Pigs may be less-than-gorgeous animals to some, but those in the care of Rachel Clark, 12, of Glenelg are anything but gross. In fact, Clark wins prizes with the porkers she raises on her family's 1,800-acre dairy, livestock and grain farm 30 miles north of Washington. And few awards are more coveted than those at the annual fete known hereabouts simply as "The Fair."

"Now, you take Pokey here," said Clark, swatting the rump of a 240-pound, red-and-brown pig with a riding crop. "I call him Pokey 'cause of his polka dots. Just the other day he bit me, but he's a good pig, though. Pigs are pretty fun to work with. I prefer dairy cattle myself, you know."

Howard County residents have been coming to the 80-acre fairgrounds in this farming community for over three decades, and despite the city slickers from nearby Columbia who foolishly wear low-heeled sandals to this animal show, the fair has kept its home-grown flavor.

This year's fair includes pie-eating and chicken-flying contests, fruit and vegetable judging and quilting and rug-braiding demonstrations. But the real stars of the fair, which opened Sunday and runs until midnight Saturday, always have been the prize livestock raised by local 4-H Club members, such as Rachel Clark and by young farmhands from Baltimore, Carroll and Frederick counties.

Clark, whose older sister Karen opened the fair by singing "The Star-Spangled Banner," would give Pokey several baths before the "fitting and showing" competition later in the week. Other youngsters spent hours grooming their dairy cows or working with electric clippers or oversized shears to get the right cut on a yearling's or sheep's coat.

"This has always been a family- and farm-oriented event," said Gene W. Mullinix, whose family has been farming a good bit of Howard County for the past seven generations. Mullinix, president of the nonprofit corporation that runs the event, said this year's fair was designed to give an estimated 100,000 visitors a taste of old-fashioned, rural values.

"The fair's the one time all year when Howard County comes together--and it's all volunteer labor that puts it on," said Mullinix, a ruddy-faced man who was resplendent in a pearl-gray Victorian-style suit and top hat. The volunteers parking thousands of cars in a cow pasture on Sunday, for instance, were members of the Glenelg Methodist Church who have long been active in the fair, Mullinix said.

"In many ways, it's still a strait-laced Methodist fair," he added. No beer or liquor is allowed at the fair; those who bring their own will be asked politely to leave, Mullinix said.

It's easy for a suburbanite's senses to get overloaded during a five-hour stroll around Howard's fair. The smoke of fires cooking steamship rounds of beef at the Mullinix stand ($2.75 buys a roll piled high with rare roast beef) drifts over the cow sheds, where the odor of fat Angus, Herefords and shorthorns mixes with the smell of soap, sawdust and hay.

Horses competing in the equitation ring at the eastern edge of the fairgrounds stir up clouds of dust, which then settle on dazzlingly bright orange farm equipment that invites stares but few buyers.

"The only reason we're here is for show," said Mark Mullinix, 23, a distant cousin of Gene Mullinix and a Glenelg resident whose family is the last major farm equipment supplier in Howard.

"In 25 years, my father has missed this fair only once. But we don't expect any business here, what with this year's crop and the fact that many of these folks are from Columbia," the young salesman said. Mullinix, who lives on a 1,500-acre farm in Glenelg, said he loves farming and the agricultural equipment business despite what is expected to be a poor harvest this year. "You're working for yourself," he said. "What's the sense in working eight to 10 hours a day for somebody else?"