RALEIGH The N.C. State Fair is the only chance many North Carolinians have to get a close look at a farmyard beast.
The challenge for organizers is to keep people from getting too close.
This year, the fair has taken extra steps to make sure visitors get the flavor of the agricultural exposition that has defined the fair since it started in 1853, while reducing the likelihood that they take home animal-borne bacteria or viruses as unwanted souvenirs.
“The fair is being about as stringent as you can be without just totally taking away the core components of what the fair is about,” said Sue Lynn Ledford, Wake County’s health director.
It all seems a little sterile for Rusty Henson, who has been exhibiting cows at the fair for at least 12 years. The Boone cattleman said that while keeping visitors out of his hair makes his job easier, he misses having people up close enough to ask questions about his sweet-faced Simmental cows.
“It sort of takes away from what a fair is,” Henson said Tuesday as he got ready to take a cow into the ring. “It was a mingling of urban and rural people, and urban people don’t often get to see a cow.”
After more than two dozen fairgoers got sick from exposure to E. coli bacteria last year, Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler convened a task force that included health experts, veterinarians, livestock handlers and others to look at the way more than 5,000 animals are handled, moved and exhibited at the fair each season. Ledford served on the task force.
The group’s suggestions included putting a little more distance between the two things fairgoers say they like best: eating, and looking at the animals. That involved moving several food vendors who used to set up their booths between the Graham and Expo buildings, and close to the Kelly Building, all three of which house animals.
Planners looked for places where animals were moved from one place to another, and rerouted pedestrian traffic so crowds would no longer walk where dirty hooves have trod. Signs instruct people not to bring food or drink into areas where animals are displayed.
Inside the Graham Building, visitors are no longer allowed to walk past the metal pens where cows wait to be paraded before judges. Just as they defy instructions not to rock the seats on the Ferris wheel, many people couldn’t resist reaching through the fence to pat Ol’ Bessie’s pretty brown head. Doing that and then using the same fingers to eat cheese fries could spread bacteria.
Also in the Graham Building, the old milking parlor is now off-limits except for exhibitors actually milking their dairy cattle. Visitors who want to see the milking process can sit in the bleachers outside at the mobile milking parlor, where a dairyman explains the process using a color slideshow and a live cow.
All over the fairgrounds – especially in areas that smell like hay and manure – the fair has taken a Mother Hen approach, reminding people to wash their hands, and providing soap and running water to make it easier. New kid-height hand-washing stations that look like water fountains draw children in a way that sinks never have.
The fair had already made changes after an outbreak of E. coli linked to a petting zoo there in 2004. Visitors are no longer allowed into the pens with the animals at the petting zoo, where children are likely to get knocked down by aggressive goats and land amid animal droppings.
Brian Long, spokesman for the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which puts on the fair, said exhibitors and visitors understand the idea behind the changes, especially as reports of an outbreak of E. coli infection linked to the recent Cleveland County Fair continue to spread. On Wednesday, state health officials said 61 people have been sickened, most of them children; a 2-year-old from Gastonia died.
E. coli is a bacterium commonly found in fecal material, and some strains of it can cause a variety of illnesses in humans.
Laura and Brian Satterfield brought their daughter, Ava, for her first trip to the fair Tuesday, and when she got her fill of the caterpillar roller coaster and the giant slide, they brought her to the Expo Building to see the champion lamb, pigs, meat goat, turkey and steer, as well as the monster pumpkins and other prize-winning vegetables.
“I think people lost their appreciation for the labor that’s put into farming,” Laura Satterfield said. “I think people, and especially children, need to see that. They can come here and see where it starts.”
Before coming into the building, the Satterfields had put away their snacks and drinks, stashed the stuffed dolphin Ava won at a carnival game, and put their jackets away. “As a parent, you have to accept some responsibility yourself,” Laura Satterfield said.
Long works out of an office on the fairgrounds for the duration of the event, and washes his hands so many times over the 11 days that they’re chapped by the time the midway comes down. After that, it’s another 10 days – the incubation period for E. coli illnesses – before the department knows whether its ox stayed out of the ditch.
“Every year, we count the days,” he said.