The Pennsylvania Farm Show

The Pennsylvania Farm Show, which began in 1917, is among the largest annual agricultural expositions in the United States. It is held every January in Harrisburg PA, usually over 10 days, during the first and second weeks of the month. Pennsylvania winters don't hinder visitors, because the show's 24-acre complex is almost entirely enclosed. For those interested in farming, or who want to learn more about how foods reach the table, it's highly entertaining.

Better still, it's free. There is no admission charge to the show, although tickets are sold for a limited number of special events.

Parking at the Pennsylvania Farm Show costs $10 per car in state-operated lots. Buses are available for free at regular intervals (usually every 15 minutes, sometimes less) to ferry those in distant lots to and from the show. Privately operated parking is available in selected locations, usually at higher cost. Frankly, they're not worth it.

If available, possibly the best parking is next to the state Agriculture Department offices at the corner of North Cameron Street (Route 22) and Azalea Drive. It is directly across from the primary, Cameron Street entrance to and lobby of the Farm Show Complex. But beware: North Cameron is a busy, six-lane street. Cross either in the crosswalk with the traffic light (there's a push button for pedestrians) or walk south for about a half-block and cross using the under-street tunnel.

Look around once inside the Cameron lobby. Directly ahead, against the lobby rear wall, is a long counter. Show information is available there. In addition, lobby hawkers sell a show program - complete with maps of the complex (yes, it's that big) and event schedules - for $3. To the left are stairs and escalators rising to a second floor. They're often very crowded during the show. These lead to the Equine (Horse) and Large Animal arenas, and also to additional enclosed areas of the complex ... animal housing, animal grooming, vendor booths, and other exhibits.

To the right in the Cameron lobby is an entrance to two large first-floor exhibit halls. The forward, or front, hall is a food court with booths operated by various Pennsylvania agricultural groups. The state's cattlemen offer hamburgers; the dairy association sells thick milkshakes and deep-fried mozzarella cheese cubes; the bee-keepers serve up honey-topped ice cream sundaes, and .. well, you get the picture. During the 2008 show there were about a dozen different food booths, and all had interesting fare at prices ranging from $3 to $9 per serving. A few provided free samples. Stopping here is a must when hungry.

The rear hall, behind the food court, is dedicated to the show's equipment and implement displays. The entire place is filled with farm tractors, trailers, and wheeled equipment of all kinds, manned by the manufacturers or their representatives. Some, but not all, of these mammoth machines are accessible to visitors and make great backdrops for souvenir photos. In addition, farm service businesses operate booths along the hall's south wall. During the 2008 show several of these provided educational entertainment with child-friendly activities and games. Winners' prizes are insignificant (wrapped pieces of candy and trinkets), but the games can be fun and keep family members occupied.

Visit the animal arenas (there are three in all) when events are scheduled. Events range from judging of all animals large and small (if they're bred or kept on a farm, the show has one or more contests involving them), to a full-fledged rodeo (on the second weekend of the show). The bowl-shaped arenas can hold from several hundred to several thousand people; seating usually is plentiful for all but the most popular events. A pair of binoculars can be helpful. A camera with a good zoom lens is necessary for acceptable picture-taking.

Visit the animal pens between events. All kinds of livestock are housed there. Some can be petted, others not. Remember the pens substitute for the farms on which the animals regularly live, so they look and smell like barn stalls. Dress down, and anticipate getting something messy, smelly, sticky or unpleasant on shoes and clothes. Expect to see animals doing things animals do, at surprising times. Watch the animal handlers and owners in action; they wash, dry, comb, groom and trim to perfection, and occasionally questions while doing so.

Other exhibit areas, and a second food court, are located in a wing of the complex to one side of the animal pens. Exhibitors here during 2008 were in farm-related businesses and activities, everything from food preparation and preservation to non-farm leisure activities.

It's possible to visit most of the exhibits and pens, take in a competition or two in the arenas, and have a satisfying lunch in the food court all within the space of an 8-hour day. Weekends are the busiest times to visit, but also have the greatest number of scheduled events.