EASTON — Amid the celebration and excitement of opening day at the Washington County Fair was an underlying mood of concern about the future of farming.
State Sen. Elizabeth Little helped open the fair on Monday by praising local farmers for the pride they take in their agricultural work, despite the economic ups and downs of the industry.
The county fair dates back to the late 19th century and is celebrating its 50th anniversary at its current site in Easton. Fair organizers said Monday they hoped for 50 more years of growth, but some area farmers said their local farms may be on the brink of extinction and are worried about surviving just the next few years.
A series of signs and accompanying pictures, displayed in front of fair exhibitors of the BeJosh Farm, tell the story.
"These are the hands that unloaded the hay," it reads, documenting the decline in the number of dairy farms - from 460,000 in 1975 to 60,000 in 2010. "These hands and the dairy industry are in serious trouble."
Maggie Gulley-Thayne, of the White Creek based BeJosh Farm said changing the laws would make a good start.
She said the North American Free Trade Act of 1993 that enabled countries across the globe to ship milk, cheese, butter and other milk products to the U.S. was what started it all.
"Now farmers are trying to diversify, or they won't make it. If you go by the stats, the farms won't exist by 2013," Gulley-Thayne said. "People like coming to the fair, but, what can we do? We have to do something. If people could buy local, support local farms, that would help."
Little, R-Queensbury, who is on the agricultural committee of the Council of State Governments, said she is working on a plan to institute a labeling system that will identify locally produced milk products.
"For our farmers, it's sometimes hard to compete," Little said. "Even some of our fast food places are getting their milk from places in the Midwest, rather than locally.
"People want to know where their food comes from," Little said. "If you really want to know where the food is coming from, come here. And support our local agriculture."
State Assemblyman Tony Jordan, R-Jackson, said supporting local farms is important for both economic and health reasons.
Jordan, who also spoke during Monday's opening ceremonies, said the health factor is particularly highlighted in recent days with the recall of a half-billion eggs that were distributed to retail grocery and food service companies in more than a dozen states.
"The problem is people want cheap food," Jordan said. "Whenever you try to mass-produce something, there are risks."
Jordan said support is crucial for both local farmers and for other local businesses, like home and garden centers.
"These are the people who live in the community. They pay local people. They have a superior product and the profits are spent in their local communities," he said.
"We'll never move away from being a ‘disposable culture,' but we need to be careful of what that cost is," Jordan said.
Monday's ceremony was attended by regional town supervisors, as well as by Washington County Dairy Princess and state FFA President Mary Foote.
The 17-year-old said she was also showing 12 Guernseys during fair week.
A morning rain lifted in favor of a sun-filled afternoon by the time the gates opened at 5 p.m. Fair attendees were greeted by a simmering collaboration of sausages and fries, fajitas and gyros, a hunger-inducing scent that was punctuated by the occasional sounds of cows mooing and sheep baa-ing.
Adjacent to the fair track that hosts motor sport events, Mark Wheeler was preparing to take part in his fifth demolition derby at the annual county fair.
Standing next to his bright orange spray-painted Ford Taurus, Wheeler remembered his son, Kamron, whose name and birth date were emblazoned across the top of the orange car. Kamron was 5-1/2 months old when he died as a result of an enlarged heart. His death occurred the afternoon that Wheeler was scheduled to take part in his first derby at the fair.
The next year, 2006, Wheeler entered the derby again and has participated every year since.
His goal for the derby is simple.
"Be the last one standing," said Wheeler, who lives in South Glens Falls. "There is not much preparation. It pretty much happens when you get out there. Guys start hooting and hollering. It
gets the adrenaline going. And I just go out, right at them," he said.
The fair continues through Sunday, with thousands of adults and children expected to pass through its gates.
During opening ceremonies, Sen. Little proclaimed fair week to be "family week," and she said she plans to attend today's fair in the company of her grandchildren.