Shuffling through the crowded gates of the State Fair of Virginia’s opening weekend, I direct my two elementary-aged children toward the cluster of tents marking the Brunswick stew competition. For the past 10 minutes, we’ve been standing in line at The Meadow Event Park in Doswell, tortured by the intoxicating aroma of fresh stew. Spotting a massive trophy and blue ribbon perched atop a fold-up table under a burnt-orange E-Z Up, my daughter, age 6, shouts “food!” and dashes for the winning outfit.
While we’ve missed the judging, luckily, we’ve arrived in time for the eating. When my son and I catch up, his sister has already ordered two quarts from Clyde Eacho, owner of Lawrenceville’s Clubhouse Grill, the newly crowned home of the commonwealth’s best Brunswick stew.
“I’d give you the recipe,” he says to me, with a wink, “but then I’d have to kill you. And that’d ruin both our days!”
Taking a seat on the lawn beside a big 2017-model John Deere tractor, we pour the soup into bowls and dig in. With a slightly darker hue, suggestive of molasses and Worcestershire sauce, the stew includes lima beans, corn, red peppers, pulled chicken, fresh-ground pepper, potato slivers and jalapenos. Thick and hardy, it is delightfully sweet and features a tinge of tang and spice on the back of the tongue.
I ask the kids what they think. Spoon in hand, my daughter gives a thumbs-up. “Well, you can certainly see why they won,” says my son, age 11, fishing up another bite.
Thirty minutes later finds the kids furnished with wrist-bands ($25 each)—that is, limitless passes to indulge more than 50 carnival rides until they keel over with exhaustion or vomit. Whichever comes first.
Surveying the traditional collection of teacups, Ferris wheels, elevated swings, fun-houses and carousels, they prefer to sample the newest offerings. Particularly impressive is the Super Nova—a hyper-charged take on the old-fashioned teacup ride, wherein the turntable rises to nearly 70 degrees, combining gut-dropping falling action with doubled-up spinning. Another favorite is the Hydra, a rotating pendulum affair that, with its dazzling lights, seems borrowed from nearby Kings Dominion.
At a lull between thrills, we acquire a bouquet of cotton candy and encounter Bozo. From his perch in a wire-protected dunking booth, the antagonistic clown rains insults upon passer-by. Shelling out $5, my son hurls baseballs at a target and becomes fodder for Bozo’s roasting.
“Come on, is that all you got?” goads the cackling clown. “Ya’ throw like a 5-year-old girl!”
On his 10th and final shot, my boy’s fastball hits home. A gong sounds. A catch releases. And Bozo plunges beneath the water. “How’s that for throwin’ like a girl!” he cries, giving me a high-five.
“Looky here folks,” the clown muses, struggling back onto his stool. “If the upstart don’t think she’s a regular Babe Didrikson!”
My son rolls his eyes. Casting me a piteous look, he quips, perhaps half-seriously: “Shouldn’t somebody let him know it’s 2017?”
By 5 p.m., we’ve eaten funnel cakes and grilled turkey legs, watched cowboys blast targets while riding sidesaddle, chainsaw artists transform hunks of wood into bears and eagles, and Virginia Logging Association arborists demonstrate how to trim and fell trees.
Faced with an impossible decision between attending a roller-derby or Rosaire’s Royal Racers pig race, we flip a coin and steer toward the latter. In route to the track, we peruse the horticultural exhibits. While the blue-ribbon ears of corn, squash, house plants, roses, string beans and so on are fascinating, it’s the giant pumpkins that steal the show.
Situated on the back of a flatbed trailer is William Layton’s record-breaking, Nelson-County-grown first-prize winner, Last Chance. Standing 4 feet tall, measuring 160 inches around, and weighing 1,138 pounds, it is the largest documented pumpkin ever grown in Virginia. By its side is Layton’s second-prize winner, Baby Huey, which, at 824 pounds, is itself no slouch.
“How on earth do you grow a pumpkin that big?” asks my son, in awe.
To fuel the fruits’ growth, Layton says he fed them special fertilizers and watered them with 400 gallons of Tye River water daily for more than two months!
The pig-racing track is surrounded by bleachers, and the bleachers are packed. The spaces between the bleachers are also jammed. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder, moms and dads boost kids onto their shoulders, hoping they’ll catch a glimpse. Meanwhile, children scramble up the facility’s temporary aluminum fencing (a series of interconnected cattle gates, basically), craning their necks to get a look.
Lucky for us, my press-pass affords us front-row seats along the cedar-chip lined raceway. Wriggling into my lap, my daughter claps and wrings her hands. “Oh, I just cannot wait,” she exclaims. “I love, love, love pigs! They’re so cuddly and cute!”
Giving her a squeeze, I gaze around flabbergasted—there are, I’d say, 1,000 people in attendance. A near-hysteric excitement fills the air. I keep a wary eye on my son, half-expecting him to break off and, like some new-age Artful Dodger, take to playing bookie, working over the riled-up kiddie crowd collecting bets.
Dressed in an officious Nascar-like racing uniform, when the announcer steps onto the central platform and releases the first heat of pigs into their starting pen, the kids explode in a frenzy of shrieks and cheers. Minutes later, five or six small, curly-tailed and, yes, adorably cute pot-bellies with names like Lightning and Jumpin’ Jill bump and jostle along the track, kicking up cedar chips as they vie for position, battling for dibs on a bowl of victuals lying just beyond the finish line.
Shaped like a rectangular doughnut, the track is a little longer than half a football field, and takes the pigs about10 seconds to complete. The races consist of three heats that feature different breeds of pigs, each bigger than the last. The spectacle lasts just under 30 minutes.
With the announcer hyping their “blazing speed,” my daughter cackles with glee as the final “fastest” heat waddles into the staging area to the tune of “I’m Too Sexy.” The pigs are enormous, full-grown Asian pot-bellies. “They’re so fat!” she squeals, joining the chorus of giggling children.
Lumbering down the track, the pigs bob their heads as if propelling themselves forward. When they reach the midpoint, we realize one has been held back at the gate— “Oh no, Speed Demon got stuck!” cries the announcer. Released, the pig lives up to his nickname. He gains quickly, passing the other pigs one by one and, at the last possible moment, taking the checkered flag.
The effort doesn’t go unnoticed. By now, the children have all leapt to their feet. Applauding, chanting, “Speed Demon, Speed Demon!”, they give him a raucous ovation.
After a dinner of barbecue sandwiches spent on the lawn listening to Love Canon—a raucous bluegrass cover-band specializing in ’80s and ’90s pop songs—we check out a new and unexpected sampling of extreme sporting.
Tucked away in the far-corner of the park, a pair of professional BMX bikers strut their stuff over a course of platform jumps and quarter-pipes before a capacity crowd. After a long set of biking, motocross riders take turns launching their two-wheeled machines over 80 feet in the air, performing stunts like supermen, heel-clicks, rear-fender grabs and even backflips.
However, our favorite is the Xpogo Stunt Team. Donning special air-compressed pogo sticks—which were invented just 7 years ago, in 2010—a crew of innovative pogo-ers execute tricks while bouncing as high as 11 feet in the air. Dan Mahoney, a 24 year old from Vancouver, Canada, even sets a world-record, front-flipping over something like eight or nine people.
With the Fair nearing closing time, we catch the shuttle by the gate and head for our car. In the hours since the sun went down, the temperature has dropped to a chilly 55 degrees. Snuggled together, we muse about our adventure, comparing our enjoyments to those of the next 10 days.
There will be a rodeo, demolition derby, 30-brewery craft beer fest, dog show (agility), mountaineering exhibition and tons of agricultural events like a cattle show, coon mule jumping competition, sheep dog demo, mutton busting and more.
“Wouldn’t it be cool if we could come back every day and see it all?” says my son with a yawn. My daughter and I nod in sleepy agreement. Yes, yes indeed.
To learn more about the State Fair of Virginia, visit StateFairVa.org
For Farmers Producing Artisanal Foods and Specialty Products, the State Fair Offers an Exquisite Marketing Opportunity
With upward of 250,000 attendees to in 2017, the State Fair allows artisanal vendors to access hordes of potential new customers. Meanwhile, visitors enjoy interacting with the artisans directly, learning about foods, products and crafts from those that make and grow them.
Whispering Springs Farms
In 2011, Stacey Condrey says she accidentally started a farm-business that now offers more than 50 handmade artisanal food and skincare products, as well as grass-fed beef, free-range eggs, goats’ milk shares and horse training services. “We purchased the farm in 2008 and, as my daughters were lactose intolerant, I bought two milking goats on a whim,” says Condrey. “I soon purchased two more and, although I made ice-cream, kefir, yogurt and more, I still had a ton of excess of milk. I didn’t know what to do with it all, so, I thought, ‘Why don’t I start making soap?’”
Initially, Condrey made soap for her friends and family. “For Christmas and birthdays that year, everyone got soap,” she says with a laugh. However, the soft all-natural goats’ milk products were a hit and, soon enough, Condrey was inundated with orders. “Everyone wanted more,” she says. “And their friends and family wanted to try it too.”
To meet demand, Condrey upped production and began experimenting with new varieties and products. By the time she set up her booth at the 2017 Fair, she was processing about 50 pounds of soap a day. Meanwhile, her catalog had expanded to include hand-salves, lip balms, sugar scrubs, all-natural bug repellent, aromatherapy packs and more than 30 varieties of soap.
“We launched an online store in the summer of 2017 and came to the fair so we could get our products in front of new customers,” says Condrey. “With its focus on agriculture and agricultural products, the fair is a perfect venue. We get to talk to people, educate them about the virtues of our soaps and skincare products, and we sell out of everything we have almost every day.”
Virginia Peanut Growers Association
Just over 60 years ago now, the VPGA was formed with the dual goal of conglomerating Virginia’s peanut farmers and distinguishing their product from that of other U.S. cultivators. Much like the state’s tobacco farmers, the growers hoped to educate consumers about what is widely considered the world’s most superior peanut.
“What our growers call the Virginia Type peanut is special for a couple reasons,” says VPGA executive secretary Dell Cotton. For one thing, as the nuts thrive in loamy, sandy soils, the strain is grown in a concentrated area consisting of just eight counties in the most southeastern portion of the state. “Second, the nut is the largest variety in the world,” continues Cotton. “With its large oval shape and reddish-brown skin, it has an extremely pleasing appearance. And it tastes great. Its crunch and beauty have won it a world-wide reputation as ‘the peanut of gourmets.’”
Since the late 1950s, the VPGA has grown to include 175 farmers. Together, they work around 25,000 acres of farmland, producing upward of 95 million pounds of peanuts a year. Accounting for two percent of the nation’s annual crop—about $26 million worth at the grower level in 2016—peanuts are big business in the commonwealth. And that’s before you factor in value-added goods produced by packaging and distribution facilities like Planters, which is based in Suffolk.
For the VPGA, the State Fair provides a platform for educating the public about the myriad uses of peanuts, their nutritional value and where they come from. “Most people have never seen a peanut plant,” says Cotton. “So, we have plants onsite and teach people about the nut’s history, as well as how they’re grown, harvested and cured. It draws people in like a magnet, and they walk away appreciating the peanut’s place in history and our local economy.”
Pelican Joe’s Donuts
Back in the mid-1980s, brainstorming fun and interactive ways to spread the word about their crop’s promethean usefulness, members of the Virginia Soybean Association had a novel idea: Why not offer State Fair goers mini-doughnuts made from soy-flour?
Operating a single doughnut-making machine, volunteer members set up a table implementing the doughnuts as a platform for disseminating information. The delectable treats were an immediate hit. And, in years to come, became a go-to culinary staple of the fair.
However, by 2004, the operation had become too large for the association and its volunteers to continue to manage. With no one waiting in line to take over, the 17-year mini-doughnut tradition appeared to be coming to an end. That’s when long-term fair-goer Teri Phillips decided to step in.
“My family and I had made a tradition of attending the State Fair, and the mini-doughnuts were the food we looked forward to the most throughout the year,” explains Phillips. “When we discovered what was happening, we decided to buy the vending assets and continue the tradition ourselves.”
Operating under the name Pelican Joe’s, Phillips has since expanded offerings to include three types of coffee, doughnuts in flavors like plain, powdered-sugar and brown-sugar cinnamon, with options including rich chocolate or strawberry dipping sauces and whipped cream. And customers can now buy in bulk.
Interestingly, Pelican Joe’s operates just once a year and is exclusive to the State Fair. “We don’t have a storefront, and we rely entirely on the help of about 30 close friends and family members,” says Phillips. “For us, this is about family, friends, tradition, and, of course, super tasty treats.”
Lavender Fields Herb Farm
After catastrophic rains from hurricane Isabel decimated LFHF’s lavender fields in 2000, the operation shifted gears, transforming itself into one of the East Coast’s largest USDA-certified organic herb nurseries. Located in Glen Allen on 37 acres, the sixth-generation family-farm now offers more than 200 varieties of vegetables and herbs, and sells more than 300,000 plants annually.
With its beautifully developed property situated on the Chickahominy River, the farm is more than a place to purchase plants. “We’re minutes from Richmond, and we love for people to come visit,” says retail manager Shaun Mercer. Toward making that happen, LFHF offers guided tours, a variety of educational opportunities—including wreath-making, cooking classes and more—and has a farm store chock full of goodies like raw honey from their apiary, fresh-made ice cream, handmade soaps and skincare products, and just about every breed of lavender-based product one could imagine.
As a family business, unlike their corporate competitors, Mercer says the farm doesn’t have a huge advertising budget. For them, the State Fair is the perfect opportunity to engage with potential customers from around the state and educate them about general gardening tips, as well as the uses and benefits of herbs, lavender and local honey.
“We bring a wide selection of herbs and pollinators with us to the fair and explain how they’re grown, what to do with them and so on,” says Mercer. “We also talk a lot about garden ecosystems and how the plants work together to create them. We like to try to give people a big-picture view of farming and gardening.”