For any city folk curious to milk a cow, drive a combine or live out any other farm fantasy, it might be worth a trip to this year’s Erie County Fair.
The Erie County Agricultural Society is putting the finishing touches on its new Agriculture Discovery Center at the Hamburg Fairgrounds with opening slated for the start of the 175th fair Aug. 6.
“I think it’s important to have an understanding of how your food got to your table and a lot of people now are very curious about that,” said Jessica Underberg, Assistant Manager of the Erie County Fair and Manager of Agriculture. “They want to know where their food came from. They’re just not sure where to go to get those answers.”
Underberg and fair organizers think the 60,000-square-foot center will be the place. Education is the focus, with an emphasis on showing the progression from traditional farming methods to today’s more complex ones.
Exhibits include Milkable Mabel’s Stable, which uses interactive replicas to demonstrate how cows are milked by hand, with a milking machine or a more advanced “voluntary milking system.”
“I think we do a good job explaining to people that milk comes from a cow but we’re not doing a good job of explaining how that milk leaves the cow, leaves the farm and ends up at your table,” said Underberg, who grew up on a dairy farm.
There’s also a Case 7088 four-wheel drive combine that has been outfitted with screens in the cab to simulate the experience of cutting and threshing grain.
“People can climb up into the combine, sit down and feel like they’re the ones driving the combine down the field harvesting the corn,” she said.
Some exhibits are new while old favorites remain from the former Agsperience barn. It was demolished last year along with the concrete-block dairy barn and milking parlor barn to make way for the $8 million center, which was paid for entirely with society funds.
They’ve kept the maternity ward, which will hold six cows due to birth calves at the fair this year.
“Our goal is to put in a camera so you can sit at your desk at your office and watch that happening,” she said.
And there will still be a chick hatchery, “So people can see baby chicks poking through the shell,” she said.
Other features include a blacksmith shop to demonstrate metal forging; the 64-seat Harvest Theater in a silo to show movies and presentations; a milking parlor to watch live cows being milked; and a tree and forestry exhibit.
The center wasn’t built just for the fair’s 12 days, however. It will be a year-round facility, Underberg said.
“We know that the fair is our biggest touchpoint for agriculture but we knew that there’s so much more opportunity,” she said.
The society has expanded its Farm 2 Table program for schoolchildren beyond third-, fourth- and fifth-graders and is also exploring adding summer camps, she said. It also is looking to draw Boy and Girl Scout troops, senior groups and children with an interest in possibly becoming veterinarians.
“We’ll use the facility a lot more than just 12 days, that’s for sure,” she said.
Ninety-eight percent of the population is not involved directly with agriculture, she said.
“It used to be that you’d go to grandpa’s farm or an uncle’s farm for a week over the summer,” she said. “People don’t have that connection anymore.”