Big Butler Fair remains a true family affair
Harold Dunn can't remember the first time he went to the Big Butler Fair.
“As long as I can remember, I showed animals there. My four children did. This year my grandchildren will be showing lambs,” Dunn said.
The fair, which starts on Thursday and runs through July 6, is one of the three largest in Pennsylvania. It predates the Civil War and these days draws crowds for its live music, carnival games and rides, displays of antique farm equipment, motocross competitions, square dancing and Fourth of July fireworks.
“We try to attract younger crowds. Kids want rides. Younger people want concerts,” said Ben Roenigk, the fair's vice president.
Yet the Big Butler Fair's main thrust remains agriculture, much as it was when it started in 1856 on a plot of land near Kearns Crossing. The fair's schedule is filled with judging sessions for chickens, cows and sheep.
“Farming is still a big business in Butler County. There are not as many people involved in it as there once were. There are parts of southern Butler County that were once farms and have been developed. But it's still a big business,” said Roenigk, whose family runs a school bus company and has been involved in the Big Butler Fair for decades.
The fair is one of two large agricultural events held each summer in the county. The Butler Farm Show, with animal exhibits and judging contests, runs from Aug. 5-10. Because it is held later in the summer, the farm show has more exhibits of farm-grown products. It also has large displays of arts and crafts. Last year, its livestock auction sold $200,000 worth of animals.
“It's certainly not the norm to have two fairs,” said Donna Zang, an extension educator for Penn State University in Butler County.
Agriculture in the county has changed dramatically, said Dunn, whose 64-acre Connoquenessing farm has been in the family for seven generations.
Dunn, 56, and his family raise sheep and grow corn, soybeans, wheat and forage crops such as hay.
“The crops have not necessarily changed. But it's certainly more high-tech than it used to be, and smaller farmers like me now have access to equipment that only the big guys in places like Iowa and Texas used to have,” said Dunn, who took over management of the farm in 1980. Until he retired this year as principal of Laurel High School in New Castle, he also worked as an educator.
Among the changes are tractors — some don't require a driver — and other computerized farm equipment.
“Technology has really changed how things are planted and has made everything more efficient. We have doubled our production in the past 50 years, and will have to do it again over the next 50 years,” Dunn said.
Improved productivity is important because world demand for food has increased so much, Dunn said.
“A lot of the product is used locally. But lots of what grows in Western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio goes right onto barges and is headed for China,” he said.
Dairy farming is Butler County's biggest sector, said Zang. Yet there are far fewer dairy farmers than there once were, and dairy farms now tend to be larger.
Pennsylvania is the fourth-leading producer of dairy products in the United States.
“Dairy farming is very labor intensive,” Zang said.
Dunn's family once had a dairy farm. “They are a lot of work,” he agreed. “You milk cows twice a day, and the return is not good.”
Harold Kennedy, 75, who owns a 212-acre beef cattle farm in Adams, watched the shift toward beef farming.
“The money is not there in dairy. Today, you could not get by on less than 100 cows. You used to be able to get by on maybe 20 cows,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy keeps a photograph of himself at the Big Butler Fair in 1939.
“My kids, grandchildren and great-grandchildren have all shown animals there,” he said.
Other types of farming have grown in recent years in Butler County, including the ornamental horticulture industry and two alpaca farms, Zang said.
There are steep barriers for people wanting to become farmers, she said.
“There is interest there. It takes a lot of capital investment, though.
And for many already in the business, it becomes difficult for them to make a living,” she said.
Rick Wills is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7944 or at email@example.com.