Judging from the sights, sounds and smells at this year's Howard County Fair, it is hard to imagine farm life being threatened in this central Maryland community.

Over in the horse ring, a serious-looking judge wearing a funny hat and a purple tie frowns as he watches a sturdy mare trot away. "Bleats" and "baahs" fill the sheep barn as farmhands ready their livestock for competition. A mother pushing a stroller through the pigpens wrinkles her nose as she steers around that pile of whatever in the aisle.

"You'd never know that this represents a county that includes Ellicott City and Columbia," said Columbia resident Janice Gardner. "But that's why I moved here, to be close to stuff like this."

The fair owes much of its popularity to visitors such as Gardner. Organizers expect that as many as 100,000 people will stop by the county fairgrounds near the junction of Interstate 70 and Route 32 before the eight-day event ends Saturday.

But Gardner admits she is a walking, talking example of the suburban paradox that props up and threatens the agricultural tradition on which the county fair is based, even though the fairs continue in almost all of the Washington area's major suburban jurisdictions.

"We move here to be near the country, but now there are so many of us out here that we're losing the country," Gardner said.

Fairs have already been held this year in Alexandria and Fairfax County. Loudoun County's 4-H fair ended yesterday. The Prince William County Fair started Friday and runs through next week. Arlington's fair starts Thursday, and fairs are scheduled later in Anne Arundel, Prince George's and Montgomery counties.

With development in Howard County creeping westward, organizers said, they have purposely resisted the temptation to suburbanize the fair -- for instance, maintaining the livestock events that other fairs have lost. Fair President Dale Hough boasts that the only changes visitors will see are a new coat of blacktop on fairground roads and some freshly painted barn fencing.

That the fair has retained its agricultural flavor is largely because of the big, extended families that have long toiled in Howard County, according to County Council member Charles C. Feaga (R-District 5).

Feaga, who owns a 200-acre farm with five of his siblings, said only about 50 farming families remain in a county that once counted far more.

"Today you probably could not purchase a farm and pay for it out of farming," Feaga said.

Few farmers own farms big enough to justify the cost of purchasing today's sophisticated farm machinery, Feaga said. And it has become more and more difficult to find cheap labor. "We're in competition with a lot of other businesses now," he said.

To survive, the farm community has had to adapt. Some farmers sell their development rights to the county to defray costs and continue farming. The program has been so popular that the county recently increased its goal for agricultural preservation from 20,000 to 30,000 acres.

Other farmers do what the Feagas did. To pay inheritance taxes, they sold an option to a developer to someday develop the farm. That helps the family keep the farm and allows Charles Feaga to grow grain and hay and raise about 100 head of beef cattle. But eventually, the Feaga farmland probably will be turned into subdivisions of big houses on large lots.

Signs of other changes can be seen at the fair. Shiny new riding mowers sit in front of tractors as a lure to homeowners tired of pushing their push mowers. Hawkers on the midway use stuffed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle and Bart Simpson dolls to lure children and their accommodating parents.

Many of the fair participants are hobby farmers, such as Kim Fleming, 20. Fleming said her family works the 25-acre Burnt Mills Farm primarily to keep alive the farming tradition.

"Both my parents were born and raised on large dairy farms, but they have different jobs now. My father is an aircraft engineer, and my mother is a bank teller," Fleming said.

"We have tried to carry on {the farming tradition} but in a different way, by participating in shows like these at the fair," Fleming said.

Fleming said she'll bring her 26 Brown Swiss cows to about five fairs throughout the summer. She hopes to continue farming for many years, but it may take further adapting.

"Some people are talking about leasing their livestock to city people who want the animals but don't have the land or space to take care of the animals," Fleming said. "That might help keep some farms around."

A self-described city girl, Gardner, 36, has long thought about someday buying a small farm. She had some second thoughts after making a wrong turn in the pig barn.

"I was just walking around and somehow turned down this aisle when I suddenly came face to face with a couple of snorting pigs," Gardner explained. "I got scared for a second, but this boy bounces out of a pen and just pushes the pig by me like there was nothing to it."