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At the State Fair of Virginia, striving to preserve its agricultural roots

By Norm Shafer,

Joel Gilman, Susiette Jackson and Davis Wells are the agricultural tradition of the State Fair of Virginia. The uncertainty surrounding this year’s event caused livestock shows to move to another venue. But it will still feature agricultural competitions and exhibits, including Gilman’s display of 150 or more chickens.

Joel Gilman, 49, of Glen Allen, started raising chickens when he was 5 or 6. He had a cousin, Tommy Stanley, who was a well-known chicken breeder at the time. When Stanley died, Gilman took over the bloodlines. He now raises 30 breeds at Gilmanor Farm, shipping day-old chicks to 4-H kids across the country.

“They’re a pleasure to watch,” Gilman says. “It takes a little stress away, watching them scratch.”

Davis Wells, 67, of Mechanicsville, is two years retired. The fun part of his hobby, he says, is trying to grow a small seed into the largest watermelon possible. Wells estimates that one of the Carolina Cross watermelons he’s growing to enter in this year’s State Fair weighs 100 pounds. He hopes that it will beat his winning melon of last year, which was 157 pounds. Wells has won 41 blue ribbons at the State Fair in the past five years. He has built small tables to shade each of his melons, keeping their skins fresh so they can expand more easily. He hand-pollinates each fruit, waters with drip irrigation and uses organic fish emulsion fertilizer.

Susiette Jackson, 72, of St. Stephens Church, learned to can on a wood stove as a little girl. Her mom taught her. These days, Jackson puts up food she and her husband grow in their garden. A number of jars go to family and friends as gifts. She says she has won 104 ribbons at fairs; many of them are displayed on a small decorated tree in her kitchen. Jackson says her favorite preserves are beet pickles.

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