Bringing Kingston back to the country

The Kingston Fall Fair celebrated its 175th year last weekend. But behind the livestock, the baked goods and the tractor pull lies a growing concern for farmers: city people don’t understand what they do.

The antique tractors were a big pull for the many children who attended the fair.
The antique tractors were a big pull for the many children who attended the fair.

At last year’s Kingston Fall Fair, a father was taking in the sights with his son when the child spotted a poultry egg nestled in a rabbit’s cage. Confused, the boy asked his father if rabbits lay eggs, and the unsuspecting city slicker replied that yes, of course they do.

“It was a trick,” said Lynda Hulton, a dairy farmer from Wolfe Island. “The poultry guys put an egg in the rabbit’s cage.”

To her, and to many of the farmers who attended the 175th annual Kingston Fall Fair last weekend, the father’s response was indicative of a wider trend: more and more, Kingston city residents seem to know less and care less about the work of their farmer neighbours.

“If you ask half the people in Kingston where their food comes from, they’ll say, ‘from the supermarket!’ They never say farms,” Hulton said.

Enter this year’s fall fair, which centred on a theme of “education through agriculture” in hopes of closing the gap between city and country dwellers. Sponsored and organized by the Kingston and District Agricultural Society (KDAS), the fair takes over the Memorial Centre for four days each year to bring a slice of farming life into the middle of the city.

Along with the fair’s usual animal displays, vendor booths, rides and competitions galore, this year there were many handmade posters on displays letting fair-goers know exactly what they were looking at.

On the drizzly Saturday morning, Hulton herself was a purveyor of insight to interested parties as she manned the fair’s 4-H information table with Ruth Shannon, an Inverary dairy farmer.

An association for youth aged 10 to 21 that boasts the hands on motto “learn to do by doing,” 4-H offers a variety of agriculture-based and life skills programs for its members. It also provides a way for young people interested in farming—a dwindling number, Shannon said—to connect with one another.

“4-H gave my kids a large network of friends across the province, from going to regional shows and such,” Shannon said. “My daughter goes to Loyalist [College], and when she started there she saw a lot of people she knew from 4-H.”

Both Shannon and Hulton were 4-H members when they were children, though they didn’t participate in showing cattle like the 50-odd 4-H members who were leading cows around at the fair on Saturday.

Shannon and Hulton took life skills programs instead, which teach kids about everything that’s not farming.

The Ontario chapter of 4-H, which is approximately 180 members strong, is celebrating a milestone of its own this year: 90 years in operation.

“I love 4-H,” Shannon said. “I’ve been at it for 32 years. Like any organization, we’ve had our ups and downs, but we’ll weather them at the end of the day.” Shannon said she’s noticed a distinct pattern in the attitude of Kingston city residents towards those from the surrounding farmlands.

“I grew up here, and I think the city of Kingston has what I call a redneck attitude towards farming,” she said. “They don’t understand [agriculture]. I don’t know what it’s like in other towns, but here it’s been worse since the amalgamation.”

She said she was saddened by the low turnout of Kingston residents at the fair. Though there seemed to be a lot of people milling about on Saturday despite the grey weather, many of them appeared to be either already familiar with farming traditions, or farmers themselves.

“I think the city of Kingston has so much going on, they don’t notice what’s going on right next door,” Shannon said. “I wish more people would come out. They come and they say there’s nothing to see, but open your eyes!”

If you did open your eyes and look around the fair, Shannon was right: there was a lot going on. Cows roamed through two barns, roosters on display in a third barn competed to be the loudest, and children scrambled to touch the animals in a small petting zoo sponsored by the Gananoque Canadian Tire, which included an alpaca, a goat and several tiny baby rabbits.

Families appeared to dominate the fair, taking in the vast displays of cattle, poultry, produce, baking, farming equipment and crafts from the Kingston area, as well as unique events.

Kids clambered all over the farm equipment on display outside the Memorial Centre and pressed their faces against the fence separating them from the competitors in the Antique Tractor Pull.

Many of the shiny tractors dated back to the 1950s, but they remain in good enough condition to haul a huge trailer for a few hundred metres.

During the event, a weight on the trailer moves inexorably forward as the tractor drives, making it harder for the tractor to move as its rear wheels are pressed down into the ground. It’s an impressive feat of concentration to avoid getting stuck in the mud. The trick, it seems, is to bounce in your seat.

“Yeah, the bouncing helps, but if you leave the seat of your tractor you’re disqualified,” the event’s cheerful announcer proclaimed.

Nearby, the competitors in the lawnmower races ripped through the tight turns of the short track, frequently driving wildly off course and spraying pounds of mud straight up into the air.

Two of the machines stalled in Saturday’s first race—one of them, unluckily perhaps, named “Pokey”—and had to be dragged off the course, but eventually someone was victorious, though it was hard to tell the identity of the dirt-covered victor.

Inside the Memorial Centre itself—usually the home of the OHL’s Kingston Frontenacs—the ice surface had been converted into a horse-jumping course, and the concourse was filled with tables of goodies you won’t find hide nor hair of when the Frontenacs are playing.

All entries in the goods and crafts competitions were judged carefully on Thursday, and the winning products sported their accolades proudly throughout the weekend.

Prizewinning plates of cucumbers, tomatoes and potatoes were decorated with blue, red and white ribbons, as were several large and tastefully-arranged bouquets of flowers.

Displays of the ribbon-winning crafts were set up behind the glass in a room usually reserved for stands of hockey sweaters and pennants.

Pinecone decorations, bird-feeders, wall hangings, Christmas ornaments and handwriting are just a few of the areas in which one Velda Stanley excels, according to the prize labels for each display. Handmade quilts graced another room, while plates of mouth-watering baking took up a third.

Gary and Carole Gorr, the smiling purveyors of fine maple products from Harrowsmith, had set up a table near a door in the centre’s concourse.

Their maple syrup, maple jelly and maple sugar candies were all on display for the buying, and served as a reminder that any business that depends on nature is far more subject to the ups and downs of fortune and chance.

“[Our maple syrup production] was down about 20 per cent this year because of the weather,” Gary Gorr said. “Last year we produced about 350 gallons, and this year it was more like 280.” The weather in springtime is key, he said, because that determines when they can begin tapping the maple trees.

“Last year we started [tapping] on March 5, and this year it wasn’t until March 18,” Gorr said.

Tricky though it may be, the couple has been at this business for a long time—“we’ve been doing this for 19 years,” Gary Gorr said—and they show no signs of stopping.

Roger Thompson, a former pig farmer from the Selby area, knows all about that kind of devotion to agriculture. Three years ago, he had to sell the pig farm he’d grown up on due to family and health problems, but he says he’d buy more land in a second if he could afford it.

“I’ve been coming to this [the Kingston Fall Fair] since I was six or seven,” Thompson said. “I used to show pigs with my dad.” Standing in the grey drizzling morning outside the cow barn, he reflected on the many challenges facing farmers today. Thompson said government restrictions are a major issue.

“It’s the rules and regulations that are killing us,” he said. “A fellow in the poultry barn from up in Lanark lost about $10,000 worth of his [poultry] to deer, but you’re not allowed to shoot ‘em out of season. The deer are too thick, that’s the problem.”

Thompson agreed with Shannon and Hulton that city dwellers don’t understand or care about the work done on farms.

“The kids today, they think you just pick the [food] up at the supermarket, but it has to be produced,” he said.

Thompson now lives just north of Kingston after ill health forced him into Hotel Dieu Hospital for two long stays, but he said his heart belongs to the fields and farms.

“You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy,” he said. “I hate the city. It’s a whole different world down here.”

Facts about Farming

•Kingston Township, Pittsburgh Township and the former City of Kingston merged on Jan. 1, 1998. A 2000 City study concluded that Kingston politicians didn’t properly recognize the importance of rural life and agriculture.

•According to Statistics Canada, the value of Canada’s agricultural product rose to $38.2 billion in 2004, 1.8 per cent more than in 2003. 2003’s value was 10 per cent more than 2002’s.

•The 2001 Census reported 12 per cent fewer farms in Ontario since the last census in 1996. Statistics Canada defines a farm as any establishment—from small to major corporation—that sells or intends to sell agriculture.

—Sources: City of Kingston and Statistics Canada

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