State Fair of Virginia showcases rural offerings to commonwealth
DOSWELL, Va. — With autumn weather in swing, the gates opened up on Sept. 29 for Virginia’s biggest celebration of its rural offerings, showcasing everything from blue-ribbon calfs to horse-mounted riflemen, and every stalk of straw in between.
Thousands poured in for the first weekend of the celebrations, which ran until Oct. 7, and they filled up on funnel cakes, corn dogs and lemonade before hitting the rides or hiking over to some of the classic state fair attractions.
More than just the giant pumpkins, though, are real educational opportunities for younger folks and professionals alike.
To the immediate left of the booming music and commentary of Rosaire’s Royal Racing — a daily pig-racing competition with 15 pigs racing five-at-a-time around a mulch track to get a cream-filled cookie — is Virginia State University’s College of Agriculture.
They’re showing off their latest in aquaculture research, which is primarily about farm-raised fish and hydroponic systems for urban agriculture.
“Aquaculture is the future,” said Jacob Beville, a Virginia State University student working the table. “As we get less and less land, this is how we’ll be able to produce enough food.”
Children are able to get face-to-face with tilapia and largemouth bass, all raised in very particular conditions in the school’s sophisticated microbiomes.
“You’re able to get anywhere from a quarter-pound of fish per-gallon to a pound-per-gallon, depending on how you’ve set up your tank and the type of fish,” said David Crosby, a fish health and aquaculture specialist with Virginia State University.
A minute’s walk away, at the far northeast border of the event, are a pair of tall, while tarpaulin tents concealing a gem and a showstopper: The Best In Show and Blue Ribbon tents.
One step into the Blue Ribbon tent and there are a row of engorged gourds stretching the length of one wall.
In front of the hundred- and thousand-pound behemoths, sporting a Great Pumpkins Commonwealth t-shirt, stands Hank Houston. He’s been growing giant vegetables for nine years.
“Nine years ago I found a website called Big Bill’s Pumpkins. I paid $6 for some seeds, $6 for a video, and here I am today, I guess,” Houston said.
He currently holds the Virginia record with a 1,341 pound pumpkin he grew a few years back and had weighed in at the state fair.
He was on track to potentially break that record with one he’d been working on for more than six months that he estimated (through measuring the dimensions) to be at least 1,400 pounds.
Unfortunately, Hurricane Florence brought about storms that cracked its exterior and it died shortly after.
“People don’t realize when they start growing these things that, by the middle of June, you’re going to be spending and hour-and-a-half each day working on it,” Houston said.
Everything from pruning, watering, shading and weeding have to be done each day to allow for that award-winning growth.
Houston still paid the $5-per-entry fee for two watermelons and another, slightly smaller pumpkin.
Next door in the Best In Show tent, 4-H was holding their annual Dog Show, where children and teens could contest with their pets in showmanship, obedience and agility.
Eighteen-year-old Katie Wellington is awaiting her turn in the obedience category.
Already, her two-year-old black poodle, Aladdin, has scored very high marks in showmanship.
It’s an improvement from last year, when Katie took the family basset hound, Daisy, to the show and scored bottom marks in every category.
“They did award her ‘Most Tolerant Handler’ though, because of how she dealt with Daisy out there,” said Katie’s mother, Laura.
Aladdin is Katie’s service animal as well, and he accompanies her to school every day in Nokesville, Va. He helps her control her social anxiety, and Laura says that the dog has been “a big help.”
As for this year’s show, Katie said she’s “going to do my best.” The biggest challenge is keeping Aladdin’s attention because of the announcers in the blue-ribbon tent.
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