AstroTurf

Maine Department of Agriculture Educational Outreach Trailers Pitch the Right Message

by Marada Cook

Say you went to the fair. Not the Common Ground Country Fair, but, as a local homeschooler put it – a “real” fair – one with a midway, cotton candy, dust, bright lights and teenage excitement. You’d expect to see horse and tractor pulls, harness racing, a Ferris wheel. You’d go for hot fries and cheap prizes. In the livestock barns you’d see steers larger than elephants and chickens of all shapes and sizes. We go to the fair to see traditional attractions turned novel.

That’s why a shining white box-trailer with an AstroTurf ramp and harsh fluorescent lights seems both utilitarian and out of place at September’s Litchfield Fair. It’s late on Friday night and we’ve just emerged from the petting zoo. We climb the AstroTurf and find ourselves face-to-face with a 16-inch TV flashing “ag spots” at us. The walls are lined with posters of harness racing, Maine agricultural statistics, and black-and-white photos of fairs gone by. Near the TV is a rack of neatly stacked brochures. This is the Maine Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resource’s mass-education unit, one of two rolling carnie wagons covering 25 of Maine’s agricultural fairs annually.

As so-called “conscious consumers,” we’ve come to the fair for the fried dough – but we’re willing to be educated while we eat. I’ve never seen the Department’s trailer before, and while scanning the walls we learn the merits of harness racing, the line-up of ag-product income, the value of putting a face to our food. We pick up a Mail-Order Maine directory and check out photos of the solar eclipse at the ‘37 Windsor Fair.

We head back down the ramp carrying harness racing coloring books, mostly satiated, but still feeling as though we’ve missed something. Where’s the attendant? The country fair is a place where participation is won by verbal assault. We expect a grungy man in blue jeans and tattoos to lean out of the trailer and yell, “Step right up for your Get Real Get Maine Guide!” “Just a dollar for all you can learn about the U.S. Trotting Association!”

But no such carnie appears, and the trailer (we later learn) doubles as a front for Department of Ag behind-the-scenes work at Maine agricultural fairs. The attendant staffing the trailer is a 65-year-old man named Fred Lunt, and as he says, “Fairs … are a busy business.” He means they happen all at once and for long hours, but he’s also saying that during the fairs he’s a busy guy. His job as Fair Coordinator for the Department includes overseeing livestock pulling competitions, coordinating the schedule of fair dates, keeping fair committees up to speed on changes in the fair hosting world, supervising “evaluators” who review and report on the progress and safety of each event, reviewing applications for new Maine fairs, and maintaining and stocking the trailers.

Lunt tows two of these white educational trailers to as many as five fairs a week in midsummer. “Often I’m hauling down the road in a state vehicle in the dark of night to get to the next fair,” he says. “For the season, I attend fairs every week, seven days a week.” Some days this means watching kids at the petting barns. Other days he’s enforcing animal welfare rules broken in “the heat of competition.”

When those duties are complete, Lunt gets to hang out in the ag trailers, greeting the public. He tends not to hawk his wares out loud. Instead he lets the public bring its curiosity to him. “I have people ask me everything from, say, ‘What can I do about a bug?’ to ‘Where’s the next fair?’ to ‘How do I get financing to buy a farm?’” He serves as a switchboard operator for the rest of the Department. “Usually I’m handing out cards with phone numbers to the other divisions of the Department of Agriculture.” With 800,000 attendees, Maine’s fairs combined reach more of the population than any one Maine radio station or newspaper.

Jane Aiudi is Director of Marketing for the Maine Department of Agriculture Division of Market and Production Development. She describes their efforts: “We do whatever we can in little arenas or large arenas to educate the public about Maine agriculture. The fairs do a pretty good job at educational outreach.” Aiudi says that Maine consumers, while generally aware of agricultural issues, are often confused about terminology, techniques, and where to source local food. “They want to know what exactly organic means, they are curious about local meat – what it is and where to get it. The best means of educating the public to a message is constant and consistent information.”

The ag trailers address the public’s need to know – sort of. Even with volunteer help, the trailers are often unstaffed. Even with two on the road, some fairs remain uncovered. While filled with brochures and pamphlets, the trailers have no living objects in them, plant or animal, and no means of interactive education. One trailer is equipped with a demo kitchen that Lunt does not have time to utilize.

“Obviously the trailers are more effective with a person staffing them at all times,” Auidi admits; “it’s just not feasible at this time.”

The trailers exist because five years ago Lunt suggested the idea to then Commissioner Robert Spear. Money for the two trailers came from proceeds from the Racino and the Harness Racing Association, both separate from the Department of Agriculture’s main budget. Lunt devoted his attention to outfitting them with Department materials and coordinating their presence at fairs. “We at the Department feel the fairs are one of the last showcases for agriculture,” explains Lunt. “People come to the fair to see the animals, but often they’re not sure what they’re looking at.”

In the livestock barns at the Litchfield Fair, one farmer posts 8.5 x 11 sheets of paper above each of his prize heifers. Each sheet has one factoid: about cow manure. By the end of the row, I know how much, how many times, how to clean, how to compost and what the nitrogen content is. I’ve met the farmer’s kids lead-training a young calf, and the farmer himself explains the difference between the enormous steer he’s brought to show and the bull he kept home. “Can you imagine what all hell’d break loose if I’d a brought a bull around all these heifers?”

The trailer’s job is not to teach crowds what a steer is, but to teach them that cattle are still a viable part of the Maine landscape. Aiudi says the trailers are most valuable to folks looking for general information about the Department’s services, or about Maine agriculture as a whole. “We want people to know how important agriculture is to our state, how large, and more importantly, how diverse Maine farms are.”

Large, important and diverse as our agriculture sector may be, the lonesome TV at the end the AstroTurf leaves something to be desired in terms of effective outreach. An opportunity seems to exist for volunteers to “get on the wagon” at their local fair, help fairgoers at “real” fairs comprehend what is so obvious at Common Ground. Fair participants don’t need manure facts to make a lasting impression. “Our message,” says Lunt, speaking for the Department of Agriculture, “is that despite negative press nationwide, agriculture is alive and well here in Maine.”

You can contact the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources with questions ranging from “How do I finance a farm?” to “How do I help Fred Lunt staff the educational trailers (and maybe even do local food demos) at the county fair?” at 287-3491 or [email protected]. For the schedule of 2008 fairs, see www.getrealmaine.com/visit/maine_fair_dates.shtml.

About the author: Marada Cook is a freelance writer, farmer and full-time mother of eight-month-old Eli Waters Redmond. She lives alternately in Aroostook County and Litchfield, Maine.

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