The Topsfield Fair is an annual tradition that will be celebrating its 200th anniversary as America’s Oldest Fair in 2018. Originally started as a cattle show and a way for farmers throughout Essex County to share information, it has grown into much more. Some come for the exhibits or to take in a concert while others come for the thrill of the rides or to enjoy their favorite Fair food while exploring the grounds.
While the mid-way games, demolition derby, and cotton candy are all fun, it is important to the Essex Agricultural Society, the nonprofit organization that runs the Topsfield Fair, that it remains rooted in the agricultural education with which it began.
This is where the Topsfield Fair’s extensive education program comes in. Run by Kate O’Brien, a certified teacher, the Topsfield Fair welcomed nearly 15,000 students and teachers on field trips last year alone coming from public schools, private schools, and home-school groups who all received educational materials in advance and schedules for the specific programs they would be attending.
“We understand that in order allow kids time out of school for a field trip, they have to be engaged in learning something that they can’t get in the classroom,” says Kate O’Brien. “We have aligned our program to the Common Core so that teachers and administrators know they are being exposed to important material that is supporting what they are already learning within their classrooms, while giving children an opportunity to see, feel, and experience things they might not otherwise get the chance to do.”
Fran Rosenberg, executive director of the North Shore Consortium, a special education collaborative that serves students from all over the North Shore, is a big fan of what the Topsfield Fair is doing to bring agricultural education to children.
“We send close to 100 kids to the Topsfield Fair each year and it is always a highlight of the year,” says Rosenberg. “Many of our students would never be able to experience a fair due to poverty, foster care, or other circumstances. And our students with physical disabilities find the fair quite accessible. They are able to touch the produce and see the animals. It is a multisensory experience for many of them.”
Vinnie Raponi, a sixth-grade social studies teacher at the Higgins Middle School in Peabody has been bringing students to the Topsfield Fair for each of the last four years. “I’ve had students tell me they had no idea that the Topsfield Fair had more than food, rides, and games,” says Raponi. “I always enjoy watching the kids hold the baby chicks, petrified that one is going to jump right out of their hands, seeing them feed the goats, or sitting to learn about the wool sheep. It is great to see the kids having a good time and watching as they learn in the process.”
The Giant Pumpkin program is one of the programs that teachers and students can choose to explore. Here students meet with Giant Pumpkin experts to discuss the genetics behind a Giant Pumpkin Seed. Topics include cross pollination, what a pumpkin needs to survive (water, sunlight, etc.), and how the growers use math to predict the weight of a pumpkin.
In another area, students learn each step in the process of taking wool from a flock of sheep to create cloth. While they pick, clean, card, and spin wool by hand, they learn how technology provides improved tools to make each step faster and more efficient.
Apples have been a staple in the school lunch box for as long as children have been going to school. At the Topsfield Fair, students come to the Fruit & Vegetable Barn to learn about the different parts and varieties of apples. They also get to take part in an interactive apple craft.
By exploring traditional farming methods and the historically important role of the county fair, students compare and contrast life today with that of the past. As part of this hands-on program, students examine 19th-century tools from the collection of the Topsfield Fair and Historic New England’s Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm in Newbury, as well as historic photographs.
Still other students have the opportunity to explore various aspects of the wonderful world of the honey bee. They work with the volunteer teachers in the Bee Building to observe the various products that we use every day that involve the Honey Bee. Students also examine a live bee colony at work and see how honey is made.
While on the Fairgrounds, teachers are encouraged to visit the Teacher Resource and Education Center, where they will find a wide array of worksheets to bring back to their school for students to complete. These activities focus on all of the aspects of the Fair, including honey bees, being kind to the environment, history, and more.
Understanding that many schools do not take advantage of field trips because of the number of students who receive free or reduced lunch, the Topsfield Fair has come up with a solution. The Education Department offers a Free Lunch Program for school groups attending a field trip. This must be requested in advance by the school and is available for schools/districts with a high percentage of students receiving free or reduced price meals. In 2015, The Topsfield Fair provided 3,000 free lunches as part of the program.
You don’t have to be a student or be on a field trip to get an education at the Topsfield Fair. Several of the programs are open to the public and run all 11 days of the fair. The fair provides a daily guide of demonstrations and activities so visitors can choose what interests them most. fairgoers will also find volunteers in each of the many buildings on the fairgrounds. Many of these men and women have been part of the Topsfield Fair family for decades and they are more than happy to share their expertise.
The 198th Topsfield Fair runs September 30 – October 10, 2016.