The Orleans County Fair in northeastern Vermont has all the classic activities: tractor, oxen, pony and horse pulls; 4-H show competitions; a bustling poultry and rabbit house and prize-winning homegrown vegetable displays. Like other similar agriculture fairs, it is an annual highlight for many co-op member farmers.
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For Andy and Sarah Birch of Maple Grove Farm in Derby, the fair evokes years of fun and challenge showing cows through 4-H. It also holds another special memory: the two met there. Sarah had just finished high school, while Andy had wrapped up his college degree. “He picked on my sister and me,” Sarah recalls with a smile. “I was known for being quiet. He said, ‘Oh, you do talk!’”
Several years later, the young couple juggles their 50-head dairy farm and 200 crop acres along with their 16-month-old daughter, Hannah. “She loves to pet the calves,” her mom says. Hannah’s a little young to start showing animals but they see a day in the future where she’ll be carefully clipping her own show calf. Andy started showing when he was 9, although Sarah didn’t start until she was 15. “I was a late-bloomer,” she jokes, “and I was terrible at clipping. You’re supposed to shape the hair along the top of the animal. Some of the kids can get it ruler-straight. Haircuts are not my specialty.”
At the peak of Andy’s 4-H showing career, he says, he took part in four fairs and two additional 4-H shows through the summer and fall. “It was something that connected my home farm experience with other young people who had similar interests,” he says. “It gave me an extra level of ownership and pride in our farm and our herd and a way to prove myself.”
The Birches are gearing up to show seven of their cows next week at the Orleans County Fair, which is also called the Barton Fair and runs from August 16-20. While most of their herd are Holsteins, Sarah has a few special Jersey cows and she’ll be showing two of them. “I love my Jerseys,” she says.
She and Hannah will be staying at the fair in a camper loaned by friends, while Andy will try to get there every day between milking and other chores. The Birches say that showing at the fair takes a lot of preparation. “Despite all that work, we still look forward to it,” Sarah says. “Some of our friends have kids the same age. We joke that they’ll all be competing against each other at the fair some day.”
These days the Birches are so busy showing and visiting with friends, they don’t have time to do much else at the fair but, from her younger days, Sarah remembers enjoying the tractor and truck pulls and going on the rides almost every night. Her fair food favorites include fried dough, caramel apples and maple milkshakes. Andy says he usually gets a fried dough at some point, “but I try not to live on it.”
Both of their mothers are also on-site for much of the fair. Andy’s mom, Lindy Birch, manages Orleans County 4-H programs and is responsible for running some of the shows at the fair; she is also on the fair board of directors. Sarah’s mom, Julie Brochu, supervises the poultry barn and will take care of Hannah for some of the time.
Little Hannah “is a chicken fanatic. She would spend all day in there,” Andy says. “At home, she has one special chicken friend who jumps out of the pen and comes to visit Hannah,” Sarah adds, noting this might be partially because Hannah is generous with the cracked corn the family keeps for chicken snacks.
Check out this USA Today story about young people going into farming featuring Andy and Sarah Birch.
Melissa Pasanen is an award-winning Vermont-based journalist and cookbook author with a focus on food, farming, and sustainability. She was the writer for The Cabot Creamery Cookbook (Oxmoor House, 2015).