Hurricane Matthew was a bellwether of fall; in the days following Matthew our weather has grown cooler, and our days shorter. This is also the season of the fall harvest and there’s no better place to enjoy autumn than at the North Carolina State Fair, which opened Oct. 13 and runs through Sunday Oct. 23.
The absolute best bargain at the fair is Thursday – tomorrow – which is Food Lion Hunger Relief Day. Fairgoers who bring five cans of Food Lion food get one free admission ticket. Unless you buy five cans of asparagus, the cost of the cans should be far less than the $10 adult entry ticket, and best of all your cans go to the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina. The Food Bank says 4.4 million pounds of food have been donated by fairgoers since 1993.
The annual festival in west Raleigh has always been special for me. As a New York City transplant, I knew very little about agriculture and rural life. Even though I have lived in the South for the better part of 39 years, I still have never spent a day working on a farm, but I sure do appreciate the backbreaking work that goes into making sure my family of eight children has healthy, fresh food to eat each day.
The State Fair may take place in the capital city, but there’s no better place to go to learn about North Carolina agriculture than at the fair. The N.C. State Department of Agriculture does a superb job of recreating farm living and teaching fairgoers about the ins and outs of how we get the food we eat to our tables.
There’s a mini farm for the kids, and numerous educational exhibits that give you a taste of how amazing the world of agriculture is. Animal exhibits are offered throughout the fair, with the best animal family scenes in the Expo Center, where you can also see a 318.5-pound watermelon, which according to information the fair has received, is the third largest watermelon ever grown and the largest grown this year.
As has been the case for many years now, the fair’s Flower and Garden Show is where Garner leaves a mighty big footprint, thanks to the efforts of Garner native Mary Jo Stephenson and her friend Tammy Kennedy (and their families).
You may have seen Stephenson a time or two stopping her car on your Garner street to pull useful items from your trash can. A self-taught “folk artist,” Stephenson uses recycled materials – “lamps primarily and other found objects, things rescued from the trash” – to make colorful artwork that you can see displayed throughout the fair garden where an entire walkway is decorated with Stephenson’s pieces that include wind chimes, bird feeders and most often one-of-a-kind masterpieces that you won’t believe.
Stephenson said the purpose of her art is to help people “to see things in a new light, to re-purpose instead of throwing them away.” She also has items made from “discarded kitchen items” such as bowls, pots and the bird feeder she made from a wok.
Together, Kennedy and Stephenson try to bring art and nature together. This year, Kennedy has entered produce and flowers in numerous fair contests, many of them items grown in The Garner Grows Community Farm Garden, which this year relocated to St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church on Vandora Springs Road. Kennedy’s winning entries are on display throughout the fair. With many jobs at the fair, Kennedy is tough to pin down. “I’m lucky to eat lunch, let along anything else,” Kennedy said.
On Monday, the day after the fair closes, you can go by the garden from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. to buy potted mums and Stephenson’s art work. “I usually sell out,” she said.
There is something new at the fair this year. The “State Fair Flyer,” the fair’s only permanent ride, is a ski lift-like ride that carries people on a 7- to 8-minute, 1,400-foot trip over the midway. The cost is $5 one way, $8 round trip.
So, you’ve still got time to attend the fair. Bag up those cans of food tonight, and tomorrow head to the corner of Hillsborough Street and Blue Ridge Road and have fun. As the fair’s 2016 theme says: “Nothing Could Be Finer.”