CEDARBURG, Wis. » The cheese curds were sizzling in vats of oil, the cartoon-colored carnival rides were spinning, and the tractors, ready to pull something heavy, were revving. Yet all was not right last week at the Ozaukee County Fair, age 153.
Inside the barns here, the entries competing for top vegetable and flower were fewer than usual. The rabbits vying for prizes were scarcer, too, Elaine Diedrich, supervisor of the rabbit tent, said as she paced the aisles, ready to submerge overheated animals up to their noses in cold water.
Some show pigs were skinnier than normal, and some farm children in 4-H brought fewer cows than planned, after families had to shrink their herds under the weight of scalding heat, a dearth of feed and no end in sight.
Across the nation’s middle, it is fair season — the time of year when rural life is on proud display, generations of farm families gather and deep-fried foods are guiltless.
But at county and state fairs across corn country this year, the most widespread drought since the 1950s is also evident. While the fairs are soldiering on, dousing themselves in Lemon Shake-Ups and Midwestern resolve, the hot, dry, endless summer has seeped into even the cheeriest, oldest tradition.
"You see the stress of this all on individuals everywhere you go — even the fair," said Vivian Hallett, who most years has entries (and winners) in nearly every imaginable plant category at the Coles County Fair in Illinois. Not this year.
"We just didn’t have the stuff," said Hallett, 65. "All our pumpkins have died. Zucchinis? Dead. Our green beans are just sitting there turning rubbery. And my gladiolas never came up at all."
Fair judges speak of discolored, shrunken vegetables and nearly empty categories (only one gladiola appeared at the Dane County Fair, a judge there said). But in some places, human attendance has shriveled, too — some combination, organizers say, of miserably hot weather and larger, overwhelming concerns back home on the farms.
"It was the roughest I’ve seen," said Gary Shemanski, facilities manager at the Johnson County Fair in Iowa. There, he said, attendance fell, four rabbits perished in heat that passed 100 degrees, and a beloved, final fireworks display was canceled for fear of setting off a fire in the bone-dry county.
For some among the hundreds of agricultural fairs across the country — and particularly for the largest state-level fairs — events have gone along apace this summer, organizers said. Healthy numbers of visitors arrived, as did long lists of contest entries in a summer when rural families may need a distraction more than ever.
"The fair is just in your blood — you don’t think about it, you just go," said Jean Klug, 63. "It’s something that’s passed from one generation to the next and always will be."
Klug, a commercial vegetable grower, nearly always competes in 30 categories in the fair in Cedarburg, which runs through Sunday. She has entries in only three this year: potatoes, leeks and onions. "And the onions," she added apologetically, "they’re only 2 inches big."
Even at some of the most established, prestigious fairs, like the Indiana State Fair, which opened Friday, fewer 4-H students were showing beef cattle — 2,169, down from 2,968 a year ago. And entries in an array of agriculture and horticulture competitions — which included categories like tallest stalk of corn, largest zinnia and heaviest pumpkin in the 200-pound-plus range — were down.
Here at the Ozaukee County Fair on a recent afternoon, the crowds were large and upbeat, but the reminders of drought were all around.
Jessica Depies, 12, held her breath as her cow, Spot, stepped onto the judges’ official scale. She had hoped Spot would break 1,400 pounds on his way to a prize, but the scale read 1,393. "He just hasn’t been eating," she said. "It’s the heat."
Inside the pig barns, families hung fans from fences and posts trying to aim extra air at their prized creatures, while others sprayed water from plant misters. Some of the contests required pig weights more than 220 pounds, but a list showed that some had fallen short.
"The drought is carrying over into everything," Matt Falkner, a farm equipment salesman, said as he looked over the slimmer pigs.
If anything, the drought has touched fairs far less than it has farming. While commercial farmers have found themselves giving up on parched cornfields and selling off livestock, many families have gone ahead with 4-H projects — the raising of a cow, the special watering of a prized gourd — for fairs they had committed to months before drought struck.
Fair organizers are bracing for the possibility of still more fallout next year, when, say, raising an extra pig for a fair may become an impossible luxury. "They may decide feed prices are just too high the next time," said Brian Bolan, the agriculture director for the Wisconsin State Fair, which opened Thursday.
Why come to a fair at all in a year like this, when there seems so little celebrate?
"It’s just country living," said Bob Hartwig, who added that his children had intended to bring five cows to the Ozaukee County Fair but downsized to three just as his family was weighing downsizing a larger herd at home.
"I’ve never seen it this bad, but people keep doing what they’re doing," he said. "What else are you going to do?"
Down the way, past a blur of game booths and inflatable prizes, Jordan Koster stood waiting at his corn-on-the-cob booth, eager to show off his healthy, full ear — a rare sight in these parts this summer and partly a result, Koster said, of a costly new irrigation system.
But few visitors stopped. Temperatures by then were soaring past 90 — too hot, it seemed, to eat.