It’s easy to think of events like the Northwestern Michigan Fair as holdovers from a past that is getting more and more remote.
Nationally — and in northern Michigan — more people than ever are living in cities or suburban settings dominated by subdivisions, malls, strip development and pavement.
Few live a truly rural life on a farm with animals to look after, crops to tend and chores to be done every day. For most of us, that’s a foreign lifestyle.
At the same time, however, a lot of northern Michigan residents are looking to a more rooted life, one in which they buy locally grown food and want to know not only where it came from but who grew it and how. They’re acutely aware of the hormones that are showing up in processed meat and milk, of genetically modified foods and animals being raised on mega farms, and they want to make sure they know what their kids are eating.
Local supermarkets carry more local foods and go out of their way to market it that way. Farmer’s markets are thriving and there are suddenly more choices than ever for locally produced cheese, baked goods, meat, distilled spirits, beer and, of course, wine. And Traverse City’s growing restaurant industry is featuring a greater array of local food than ever.
Just as longtime cherry farmers are facing retirement and hope for the younger generation to take over, dozens of young entrepreneurs are planting vineyards and looking for ways to get into the wine business.
While all that hardly makes for a return to the farm movement, it does point out that skills being learned — and lived — by the kids who participate in 4-H programs and the families that make fairs like the one here go are as important as they ever were - perhaps more than ever.
Dozens of area young people raise sheep, cattle and pigs every year to auction them off at the fair. Auction day always brings its share of tears as teens part with the animals they have raised. But those kids know what it takes to put meat on the table and that it doesn’t just magically appear in the grocery store.
And every year dozens of young people show off their canning, baking and farming skills with homemade goodies of all kinds.
Any thought that the lifestyles represented by the fair are waning is quickly dispelled by the numbers. Attendance has grown each of the last five years; Northwestern Michigan Fair Council Vice President Scott Gray said he hoped the 2013 version would top 47,000, compared to 43,000 total guests last year.
Farm life isn’t for everyone, but a visit to the farmers market shows there are plenty of people for whom it’s fine by them.