By the time 3-year-old Avery Miller made her way to a stool next to Daisy the milk cow, she decided she wasn’t too keen on milking that cow after all.
But that didn’t faze the N.C. State University student sitting next to her. Together they rubbed the cow’s belly and talked about where milk comes from.
That’s all part of the gig for dozens of N.C. State students who make their way to the State Fair every year for a chance to work with animals and educate hundreds of North Carolinians about the dairy industry and the work that goes into producing a safe product for human consumption.
The cow-milking exhibit in the Expo Center is manned nearly around the clock. Students work in mostly three-hour shifts from 6 a.m. until 11 p.m. The majority of the 200 members of the Animal Science Club will spend at least some of their time between classes working at the booth or volunteering with other ag-related efforts supported by the club, including the junior livestock shows and the N.C. Cattlemen’s Association booth. Some club members will also show their own animals during the fair.
Club members arrive at the fairgrounds before the sun rises to bathe the cows, feed them, milk them and clean out their stalls. After the fair closes, the students remain behind, cleaning the exhibit area and taking care of the cows for the night.
The students work the fair, in part, as a club responsibility. But mostly, they say, it’s just fun.
“I like being able to educate people about the animals,” said Megan Parker, an NCSU senior from Kitty Hawk.
Meagan Noblin, the Animal Science Club’s senior activities director, is in charge of putting on the event this year. She says her club members look forward to the fair every year.
“It’s definitely a party,” Noblin said. “It has been super stressful, but there’s nothing more rewarding than seeing a child milk a cow for the first time.”
Sometimes the questions people ask get the better of students. “I had one man ask me, I swear to God, he asked me, ‘Is the cow a male or a female,’” club member Brittany Sleeper said. “Of course, they’re all females, because they’re the ones that produce milk.”
Though the students are seen by many fair visitors as experts in what they are doing, few of them actually grew up on a dairy farm.
Jonah Sykes is one who did, outside of Mebane. He says he’s proud to have the opportunity to talk to people about the industry and that he also likes the work that goes into putting on a good exhibit at the fair.
“I like doing the behind-the-scenes stuff that people might not see,” Sykes said. “But it’s all work we need to do.”
Once the exhibit hall opens each morning at 9, it doesn’t take long before people – mostly young children with their parents in tow – line up for their turn to milk a cow.
A student volunteer makes sure they sanitize their hands before touching the cow, then another student takes the would-be milkers to a low-slung stool near the cow’s back legs. They talk with the child briefly, then demonstrate how to squeeze the cow’s teat to produce milk.
Some children are more successful than others. But they are all in awe of the animal, and they invariably get up from their stools and turn around to face their parents with a big smile on their faces.
Thursday at the fair
Hours: Gates, 8 a.m.-11 p.m. Midway, 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Exhibit halls, 9 a.m. to 9:45 p.m.
Tickets: Adults (13-64), $10; children (6-12), $5; military with ID, $6; children 5 and younger and adults 65 and older, free. It’s Food Lion Hunger Relief Day, so admission is free with five cans of Food Lion brand food for the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina.
Dorton Arena concert: A Night of Praise featuring Unity Choir (Orange Grove Missionary Baptist Church) with Instrument of Praise Concert Chorale and Salvation & Deliverance Church Choir, 7:30 p.m.
Forecast: Sunny, mid-80s.
Thursday’s attendance last year: 104,887