UNITY, Maine — Cool breezes, colorful foliage and sunny skies made for a perfect opening day at the Common Ground Country Fair.
Friday was children’s day, and despite some concerns about the possible presence of Eastern equine encephalitis-carrying mosquitoes being in the air, the cool temperatures and stiff breezes had apparently blown any trace of the bugs away.
EEE has killed 14 horses in Maine in recent weeks, and Dr. Dora Anne Mills, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, last week described the fairgrounds as being in the “middle of a known hot spot” for the disease. More than 120 pheasants in southern Maine have also been killed by EEE. An attempt to reach Mills on Friday was unsuccessful.
There were no insect repellent-packing monitors at the fair’s gates and a steady stream of people crowded the animal exhibits throughout the day. One man outside the gates was asking people to support legislation to prohibit mandatory flu vaccinations.
“It’s not the mosquitoes I’m concerned about, it’s the horses. The horses are the victims,” said Stacy Shaw as her group of Readfield Elementary School children checked out the animals. “I did lecture the children this morning about watching out for mosquitoes. We’ve had a lot of [discussion] at school. We’ve been warning the kids about playing in the woods and being more wary of mosquitoes.”
Russell Libby, executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, or MOFGA, said he expected an opening-day crowd of 15,000 people and that as far as he was concerned it was swarms of children, not mosquitoes, that would carry the day.
“There are no mosquitoes, no mosquitoes to worry about” a bare-legged Libby said as a chilly wind whipped across the fairgrounds. “The story today is the kids. We have hundreds of schoolchildren from all over the state here today. A couple of parents may have been uncomfortable about sending their kids here, but there’s still a lot of them here.”
Libby said the fair on Friday represents an educational field trip for the children, adding that MOFGA helps school districts pay for their transportation. The students not only get to take part in the annual celebration of rural living, they also encounter children their own age who are active members of MOFGA and sell crafts and agricultural products during the three-day gathering.
“We just think it’s very important for kids to get exposed to the possibilities,” Libby said. “If we think of the business needs of the future we need to encourage people to grow their own food and make their own crafts.”
The fair has established a Youth Enterprise Zone where children up to age 18 can market their products. There also is a Youth Enterprise Transition Zone for those over 18 who have graduated to become full-time vendors.
“We’re doing the same thing with young farmers. This has been a big learning point for our apprentices. A lot of the farmers selling here have worked their way up to the point where there are many dozens of them on site today,” Libby said.
Two young business operators who have their eye on the future are brother and sister Ansel and Maya Critchfield of the Sebago Lake community of Casco. Billing themselves as “The Soap Guy” and the “The Soap Gal” this year’s fair is the second for 12-year-old Ansel and the fourth for 15-year-old Maya.
“I’ve been doing this for two years and I love it,” Ansel said. “My soap is all natural with no animal fats. I use virgin olive oil, coconut oil, vegetable oil. I don’t know why I decided to get into doing it, I guess I was very tired when I made the decision. It takes two hours to make a batch. It’s kind of hard, but it’s fun.”
While her brother makes soap, Maya prepares healing salves and teas from herbs gathered from around the family’s home. One of her favorite teas is her Maine Tea, which is made with white pine, blueberries and tea berries. “You steep it for four or five minutes and it smells like the Maine woods,” she said.
Because the fair celebrates Maine products, it had banned the sale of coffee since its beginning 30 years ago. The rules were changed this year to accommodate organic and fair-trade coffee, and the steaming brew is now available on the grounds.
The change could pose a problem for Doug “Coffeeman” Hufnagle, who has sold coffee outside the fair gate for years. Hufnagle arrived at his usual location at 5:30 a.m. Friday and reported a brisk business.
“I’m not worried about EEE, I’m more worried about coffee inside [the fair],” Hufnagle said. “But so far it’s been great, people have been loyal to the ‘Coffeeman’.”