Growing Up with the Farm Show
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I grew up in a small town called Newville (pop. 1,000) smack in the middle of Pennsylvania agriculture country. The moment you leave the town limits—no matter which direction you’re driving—you find yourself surrounded by the hills, pastures, and silos of one of the state’s largest industries. It may not seem like much from afar—verdant fields with munching cows, endless swaying stalks of corn—but what it represents to the people who live around here is a very way of life; more than just an income, it’s who they are, and usually who their parents were, too.
I grew up with it as the backdrop to my location and culture, but it was not part of my family, our lives, or our livelihood. My mother grew up on a dairy farm, but she went to college a few towns over and by the time she came back, her family had closed up shop on the farm and moved into town. We shopped at the local grocery store, and sometimes bought ears of corn and juicy plums from the Mennonites who ran the roadside produce stand, and that was about all we thought about or talked about where our food came from.
Growing up, some of my friends lived on farms, while many others didn’t. Often there was little distinction between who was involved in agriculture and who wasn’t. My youth was filled with friends’ bedrooms to an equal degree as hanging out in lofts in barns above pig or cow stalls. I was never comfortable, per se, hanging around farms—I knew it wasn’t my natural element—but they were not foreign to me, either. In high school, my first “serious” girlfriend lived on a farm. I went with her to 4H fairs and eventually livestock auctions, where she sold pigs that she had personally raised. I was out of place around the people in those circles, but no more so than I was around the jocks or the popular kids. The oddity of animal agriculture occurred to me in passing occasionally, but my main concern was whether or not I fit in with any particular environment or group.
A yearly factor in growing up in Central PA is the Pennsylvania Farm Show. To folks from even an hour or two away, the Farm Show can be seen as either a very big deal, or very strange (depending on your perspective) but around here, it simply exists every year and seems not so different from a county fair or carnival. My family didn’t go every year; my first exposure was a class field trip in elementary school. I loved the food and craft vendors. They made me feel like I was at the beach, or a street fair in the summer. I was comfortable enough around the animals—typically “farmed” animals like cows, pigs, chickens and more that are housed in pens for various competitions—but found their presence unexciting, smelly, and mildly out of place.
Over the years growing up, the Farm Show changed for me, like most things do as we grow. As I morphed into a teenager, my friends and I would go to the Farm Show without our parents. We’d walk around, flirting with girls and sneaking cigarettes in the restrooms. Later, in early adulthood and after having moved from the area, I’d return and visit the Farm Show with my family, with my young nephews from out of state, to whom such an event was rather unique. I enjoyed the chicken cheesesteaks, thick and famous “Farm Show milkshakes”, and enormous sodas in souvenir cups. The Farm Show—with its caged animals and vendors displaying wares of unspeakable cruelty—were to me just a backdrop to my changing life.
Yet later in my life—approaching midlife now—I returned to live in the area once again, but this time I had changed. Now I was a vegan and an animal rights activist. Suddenly my new perspective on animals and animal agriculture changed my idea of the Farm Show completely. This was no county fair, no carnival. What the Farm Show is, of course, is a trade show, and like any trade show, it exists to display and ultimately sell the newest and “best” advancements of the field. In this way it is no different than an electronics show, or a home show. Except the trade is animal agriculture, and from the right distance and correct perspective, that changes everything.
Animal agriculture is an industry that depends on the suffering and eventual murder of living beings. This fact is plain to see by anybody. Looking back, young me knew this, was unsettled by it, and shoved it deep underground to ignore it. That’s what we all have to do (until we don’t). A trade show to showcase the newest, most impressive ways to cause suffering is—to put it very mildly—a curious affair, when one allows oneself to look at it in the light.
This is what I’ve come to realize about the Farm Show: it is vile and bizarre but it is no more vile and bizarre than our food system all across this nation which hides and ignores the truths, just like I did when I was growing up, just like we all do. The fact that so many of us in this area grow up going to this event, waltzing among the caged animals while eating soft pretzels and hot dogs, ignoring the cruelty that is plain as day: this is engineered by the lies and myths told to us for generations about humans and our relations to other animals. My reaction to growing up amongst this suffering is no different than a child in Manhattan who sees the lobsters in the tank in a grocery store, or the fully-grown chaperones talking their kids’ class to a zoo, or the throngs of baseball fans all across the country who go to their minor league park once a year to watch a “monkey rodeo”. We all know what we’re looking at, what we are condoning, but the conditioning telling us to push those concerns down, to hide them within ourselves, are real and powerful.
This year, instead of going to the Farm Show, look around your life and ask what you can do to ease suffering, what is within your power to change, and start to see the truth. Break the chains of generations of lies. Take the truth back.