Royal Winter Fair lays an egg

The Royal Winter Fair is boring. The realization that I probably wouldn’t find anything even vaguely compelling dawned on me while I was standing a few feet away from this year’s Reserve Grand Champion Bull, which weighs more than most pick-up trucks, and the bull’s handler, a man named Jim Muir of Hunt Farms in Kettleby, Ontario, was explaining to me what particular virtue the judges had seen in it. “He has to show thickness, good loin, hip, and he has to show really good feet and legs,” he says, and the only thing keeping me from dozing was the fear that the bull might take a few steps forward and crush me.

Maybe it’s because I’m the type of person who likes cattle better fileted and seared to medium rare, who thinks farm smells should stay on the farm, who, with Fran Liebowitz, figures the great outdoors are something you pass through on your way to a cab.

It’s probably just me, but after four visits in as many days to the Royal Winter Fair, I can’t figure out why anyone would voluntarily go and spend 15 bucks to experience it.

It isn’t that the fair lacks variety. Far from the pastoral picture drawn by so much Canadian literature, the Royal is enough to inspire sensory overload. There are entire buildings full of cattle, horses, dogs, sheep and poultry. There are vegetable displays in which you can see Arnold Vader’s 1st-prize-winning 450-kilogram pumpkin or a decorative gourd 2.4 metres long or a purple carrot. There’s a petting zoo and a chicken that beats people at tic-tac-toe — OK, that may be kind of interesting — and a butter-bust of Homer Simpson. In addition to the black-tie horse shows that draw the ladies who lunch in all their finery, this year’s fair features a rodeo in the centre ring. If all that isn’t enough, the fair also draws celebrities. In the past this has meant members of the Royal family, but this year sees a book signing by Bo Derek and a gala appearance by alleged white-collar criminal Martha Stewart.

Faced with this orgy of rurality, I can only muster a sigh. And not a wistful one, either. Animals, I find, are scary if they’re large and annoying if they’re small. Giant vegetables only look like a lot of work to cook. And come on, a book signing by Bo Derek?

The Royal draws more than 300,000 people every year, and they can’t all be on class trips. Several parents I talked to said they bring their children to the fair to learn about farm life, and the educational element is a big part of the Royal’s public relations campaign.

It’s true that I, born and raised in Toronto, am out of touch with the 28 per cent of Canadians who live in rural areas. I know as little about where our food comes from and how it gets to market as I do about splitting the atom: I know that a lot of money and machinery are involved and that it works, and not much else. The fair should have been a good opportunity for me to learn about my farming fellow citizens. After four days of taking in the shows and exhibits and talking to the farmers, I learned a lot about how they prod cows when they’re trying to show them off to a judge, but I don’t feel much wiser about how they actually live.

I ask a 10-year-old boy named Anderson Pang what he’d learned at the fair. “I learned that canola seeds can make oil,” he said, “and that pigs are big and that they smell bad.”

And I wonder, is seeing cows and horses and butter sculptures and visiting a petting zoo the best way for us or our kids to learn about farming? I’m guessing not, but I’m also guessing that we learn about as much as we really care to. Once we can be reasonably certain it’s not soylent green we’ve been eating, that there are, indeed, living chickens that turn into drumsticks and actual pigs that turn into just about everything else, we can more or less turn the page on the whole farmland thing.

If, for most of us in the city, the Royal is about getting a whiff of rural life (if you’ve never been to a farm, think wet leather and grass mixed with a little bit of sewage), it serves an entirely different purpose for the presenters. For the farmers, the Royal is similar to any other industry convention or trade show. They’re in town to sell their products and to meet others in the business.

A ram breeder named Bob Browning from the Clay Hill Ranch in LaPorte, Indiana, tells me about the financial implications of the competitions. “If we win, then the ram is going to be a lot more valuable to the general buyer,” he says, adding that descendents of the prize-winning animals (who will likely wind up on a plate) increase in value too.

I’m not sure if the exhibitors find the Royal fun, though. Unlike most conventioneers, they don’t get to check out the nightclubs or tourist attractions. An organizer with the fair told me they’d never organized group trips to hockey games or the CN Tower for the exhibitors because there’s no time between the exhibiting and the show schedules. Which just makes farming sound even less fun.

All the exhibitors I speak to seem perplexed when I ask what they did for fun while visiting Toronto. “About the only fun we have time for is to get to meet people from all over,” Terry Green of the Sunny Acres dairy farm in Brantford told me.

Wandering around near closing time Monday night, I could see the farmers relaxing after a long day. The Bull Pen Pub, located less than a hundred metres from the cattle-pen area, is doing OK business, but it seems like even more of the breeders and handlers prefer to just kick back in a lawn chair right there in the exhibit hall, next to their cattle, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes and talking.

I approach one group of people doing just that, and identify myself as a reporter. “Aw c’mon,” one of them said. “We’re not working right now.”

They were bored of answering questions and talking to reporters. And since most of us are pith-helmeted Dr. Livingstones from big dailies and television networks out to investigate alien phenomena, dutifully filing patronizing reports of the “get a load of the guy who grew the thousand-pound pumpkin” variety, that seems fair to me. I was bored asking the questions anyway.

Originally published in Eye Weekly on November 14, 2002.

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