Agriculture and education at the heart of the State Fair of Virginia

The State Fair of Virginia had been open for only a half an hour and Lynwood Broaddus had already blown someone’s mind.

In his role as “the farmer” in the crops exhibit at Young McDonald’s farm, he’d just told a man that raw lima beans are toxic.

“I’ve eaten a raw lima bean before!” the man said. “I had no idea.”

Broaddus had also given advice to home gardener Earl Browning of Fauquier on how to grow a few rows of peanuts in his backyard.

The previous day, Broaddus said, a woman had been “really excited” when he told her the plant growing behind him that looks like overgrown corn with a red seed head is sorghum.

“She said, ‘That’s my bread!’” he recalled. “She was gluten-intolerant so she eats sorghum bread.”

Though it can be used a substitute for wheat, most of the sorghum grown in Virginia is sold for pig feed, Broaddus said. Sorghum stalks also yield sorghum syrup, a popular sweetener in the South.

Broaddus is a farmer in real life—he and his brother and son farm 950 acres of corn, soybeans, wheat and rye in Caroline County—but he takes his role in the “Ask a Farmer” exhibit seriously. He pulls his Dickies denim overalls out of deep storage and dons a checked shirt. He sits in a rocking chair next to a chicken coop.

“That way, people immediately identify me as the farmer and we can go into conversation right away,” he said.

“We’re getting to a place where 99 percent of people are removed from agriculture,” Broaddus continued. “I want to tell people what that 1 percent does.”

Greg Hicks, vice president of communications for the Virginia Farm Bureau, which has operated the fair for the past five years, said fair organizers want to continue growing the fair’s agriculture component.

“It’s in our DNA,” he said.

The bulk of the agricultural education happens at Young McDonald’s Farm. On a Thursday, it was filled with school-age children on field trips.

“Look, the carrots are growing!” a kindergartner from Swansboro Elementary School in Richmond shouted with excitement, pointing to a raised bed where slivers of orange peeked out just above soil level.

A group of students from Richmond’s Boushall Middle School were trying their hand at milking Daisy, an 11-year-old brown Jersey cow, in the SouthLand Dairy Farmers Center. Giggles and some “eewws” ensued.

“That’s so weird,” one boy exclaimed after successfully squeezing a stream of milk into the bucket underneath Daisy.

Their teacher, Kathy Parker, said she brings her students to the fair every year.

“There’s so much to see and learn,” she said. “It opens up a world of agriculture for them.”

Cattle farmer Larry Cohron was overseeing the cow-milking demonstration. He said that two little girls who visited earlier in the week kept calling Daisy a camel.

“They thought because she’s brown that she was a camel,” he said. “They said cows are black and white.”

“That’s why we’re here,” he continued. “We’re here to educate.”

Inside Young McDonald’s farm, visitors can see ducks, chickens, a sow and litter of eight piglets, donkeys, goats, guinea pigs, rabbits and alpacas.

Baby chicks hatch daily inside a glass case incubated to 100 degrees. Cattle farmer and fair employee Alan McCall helped one chick out of its shell. The chick had been poking at its egg for four hours and he thought it was time to help it along.

In a natural environment, the mother hen’s movement as she sits on her eggs helps the hatching process proceed, McCall said.

The newly hatched chick rested on its stomach, its eyes closed. Its yellow feathers stuck together in wet clumps and its pink skin was exposed. Its entire body pulsed as its heart beat.

But just 20 minutes later, it was indistinguishable from the other fluffy brown and yellow chicks climbing on each other and exploring the incubator with bright black eyes.

“Yeah, there’s the rides and the food, but I would say a good 80 to 90 percent of people who come to the fair come through this tent,” McCall said. “I enjoy seeing the kids come through with their smiling faces. They’re just excited. It’s a good show.”

Not only is it a good show, but it’s a good cause, he said.

“So many kids don’t get to see these things,” McCall said. “We’re showing them where their food comes from and how to be good stewards of the land.”

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