EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ--Amidst the rides, carnival faire, and live music, it might be easy to miss the central theme of the Middlesex County Fair, which began August 1 and runs through August 7.
But in a quieter corner of the fairgrounds, the 78th annual countywide celebration turns into an homage to local agriculture and the people behind the food production.
A banner proclaiming "A Tribute to Middlesex County Agriculture" welcomed fairgoers into the region of the park where Middlesex County Cooperative Extension and the county's 4-H Youth Development clubs offered a journey into the world of local agriculture.
Bill Hlubik, an agricultural and resource management agent and director of the Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Middlesex County's EARTH Center, said the fair was one of many opportunities for residents to learn more about whom their food comes from.
"We're seeing a resurgence, especially in the past several years, of people interested in knowing where their food comes from and wanting to connect with local farmers," Hlubik said. "If you get fresh produce … it's the highest quality in terms of nutrients and flavors.
"And supporting local business is always a huge, huge shot in the arm; it helps to sustain [farmers] and, in turn, helps to sustain the environment."
Not only are fresh foods healthier and tastier, they're not treated with the same preservatives and pesticides that tend to be used on imported foods.
Buying local also brings with it, as Hlubik pointed out, an economic benefit for one's neighbors, instead of distant shareholders whom happen to have a stake in a multinational food corporation.
Moreover, by purchasing local produce and other foodstuffs, residents reduce the amount of shipment and transportation required to get that food to their dinner table; less transportation means less harmful emissions and fresher foods.
"Support local farmers whenever you can so the profits come back into the community," Hlubik said. "In most cases, we hire local kids, local students. They benefit, the farmers benefit, and the community overall is going to get a better product."
Beyond just produce, the county fair offered residents an opportunity to become acquainted with the otherside of agriculture as well: livestock.
The 4-H Youth Development clubs had a wide variety of small animals and larger livestock, as well as horses, on display with knowledgeable members to answer questions.
Monika Perez-Garcia, a co-leader of the Barnyard Kids 4-H club, presided over a pair of goats and discussed the variety of animals – alpacas, pigs, and chickens to name a few – with passersby whom strolled through the tent.
"We work with all kinds of livestock from guinea pigs and rabbits all the way up to chickens, sheep, pigs, goats, and cows," she said. "We also do a little gardening and things like that, because Middlesex County tends to grow houses, but every kid can have a garden."
By helping children get in touch with plants and animals, Perez-Garcia said they can better understand the many natural aspects of New Jersey and Middlesex County, which often go overlooked in favor of urban development.
"We really are a garden state, and we do have an agricultural background," she said. "We want people to realize that."
She also stressed the importance of recognizing local agriculture and helping young people understand where their food comes from.
"When you get fruit and meat and vegetables from a locally grown farmer, you can go to that farmer and [ask about their processes.] You can see them, you can see that you're eating healthy animals, healthy vegetables, and that they're fresh."
The EARTH Center will be hosting an open house on Saturday, August 20 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Davidson's Mill Pond Park in South Brunswick. The rain date is scheduled for August 21.
In addition, Hlubik encouraged those interested to sign up for the Master Gardener program, a year-long course intended to demonstrate the ins and outs of growing food and flowers.
Hlubik is also launching a beginner's farming course this fall, and anyone interested in encouraged to contact himvia email at email@example.com.