The author with her champion pen of three, "a few" years ago.
The author with her champion pen of three, "a few" years ago.

Blue ribbons and butter cows, cotton candy and funnel cakes, lemon shake-ups and loud machinery, prize-winning pigs and apple pies.

These vivid mental pictures awaken our senses and bring back fond memories. No matter where you reside in the United States, summertime means fair time. My brother and sisters and I lived for the fairs -- the payoff for a long, hot summer of baling hay and cleaning pigpens. The state fair was our final fling before school began.

Five kids in the family meant a lot of show animals, so getting the hogs to the fair was an experience in itself. At times, the situation would get a bit tense: livestock can bring out the best in people, or sometimes the worst. We gave new meaning to the term "Restricted for strong language."

After arriving and finding adequate pens, we took it easy for awhile. We located everyone's show box and picked a place for our endless card games. Innumerable hours were spent just watching the people from downtown Detroit and their varied reactions to the hog barn.

We decided from which rafter to string the fake spider for the greatest effect. My heart took a nostalgic leap when my daughter did the same thing at the Iowa State Fair several years ago.

We usually made a swing through the midway to try out the newest, wildest, fastest rides. That's probably why I can barely get on a seesaw or swing now without suffering motion sickness.

All frivolity ended the afternoon before show day. With our arsenal of soap, brushes, hoses and old clothes, we scrubbed pigs into the early morning hours. Exhausted, with pink and wrinkled hands and feet, we'd stumble to the dorm for a few hours of sleep.

On show day, chores were done early so we could freshen the pens and powder the pigs. Some of you will remember the days with white pigs were showered with talcum powder and black pigs were given a generous coating of oil so they’d glisten in the sun. The white pigs left a trailing cloud of powder as they streaked from their pens to the show ring!

Competition was fierce (especially among family members) as we worked intently to drive our animals near the judge to ensure his appraisal. There was no better feeling than having the judge look your way, point a finger and say "Put your pig in pen one." No doubt that's where my competitive nature was honed.

Sometimes our efforts would be rewarded with blue ribbons and banners, but it was the joy of competing that we appreciated, and knowing we'd accomplished something important.

After working hard all summer, the fairs were the culminating reward. We proved we could be trusted and carry out given responsibilities. We weren't angels, though. My parents were slightly shocked to see their 13-year-old daughter featured on the eleven o'clock news for winning the hog-calling contest! Fortunately, it was all in good fun, and I really wanted that $25 prize, which was a lot of money back then.

The fairs had another purpose. They made us proud of what our family did for a living and served as a showcase for agriculture. They still do. I'll bet there are few farm folks who can walk through the exhibits at a fair without feeling a similar sense of pride. It's gratifying to see individuals display the fruits of their labor and glow at the resulting purple ribbon. That feeling of accomplishment, passed from one generation to the next, instills confidence in the future of the family farm.

Don't miss the opportunity to bring back -- or create -- memories of your own this summer. See the best American agriculture has to offer at your own local and state fairs.