PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Most young children living in Aroostook County know what a potato is, even if they relate the vegetable to Spuddy, the Maine Potato Board mascot.
But more than 1,800 children and a lot of their parents may have learned a lot about how food goes from farm to table during the Northern Maine Agricultural Fair last August thanks to a unique exhibit made possible by a Presque Isle woman.
Jessica Blackstone, an agricultural fair board member, recently was presented with the Maine Association of Agricultural Fairs’ most prestigious honor, the Rising Star award.
“I was really shocked,” Blackstone, a graduate and staff member at the University of Maine at Presque Isle, said Tuesday. “I didn’t expect that at all, but it was nice.”
Blackstone was a first-year member of the Northern Maine Agricultural Fair board last year when she became the driving force behind Lil’ Farmers at the Fair, a popular interactive exhibit that took months of planning and preparation to put together.
Blackstone said it was not her idea to debut the hands-on exhibit at the event, but she was responsible for planning it. Children ages 3 to 10 stepped into a miniature farm set up on the fairgrounds. It featured replicas of barns, food and farm animals, including lifelike chickens and a cow that could be used to simulate the milking process.
Each child picked up a small basket and gathered oats and corn in the grain barn, which they fed to the cow. After they milked it, they fed chicks and hens and gathered eggs before picking an apple from a wooden tree.
To tie the exhibit to Aroostook County, it featured a potato house where the children learned to size and bag potatoes before picking a potato to sell at the farmers’ market. They saw a replica of a sheep and learned that its wool is used to make clothing, samples of which were nearby.
The children sold the items they collected, trading them for fake money that was used at the end to purchase a snack.
“We created this because we knew that we needed something new to attract families,” she said Tuesday. “We also wanted to dispel the notion that we are just carnival rides. We are an agricultural fair.”
The exhibit also had to be created cost-effectively. Blackstone was able to secure wood for five small barns that was donated by Huber Engineered Woods of Easton. Three of the buildings were constructed by Future Farmers of America clubs from Presque Isle, Caribou and Mars Hill high schools. A fourth was built by the Northern Maine Antique Tractor Club and the fifth by Warner Archer of Washburn.
“It took a lot of work and it would not have been possible without the donors,” she said. “But we got so much positive feedback on that and the children had so much fun. The adults were also really happy watching them have fun and learning at the same time. We had more than 5,000 people go through it, and 1,800 children.”
Blackstone said she believes the number would have been higher had the weather cooperated. It rained for four days of the nine-day fair.
Kevin McCartney, president of the Northern Maine Fair Association, nominated Blackstone.
“The original plans were to have three small barns the first year but Jessica’s considerable energy led to pursuit of funds and people to construct all five planned barns,” McCartney stated. “Lil’ Farmers was and is a huge success, with more than 5,000 people taking the tour at the past fair. This project is an inspiration for other fairs in Maine, and Jessica is an inspiration to us all.”
Blackstone conducted a presentation about the Lil’ Farmers exhibit during the Maine Association of Agricultural Fairs annual meeting and challenged other fair officials to create their own similar exhibits.
“We wanted to create an experience from start to finish,” she said. “We knew that it would keep kids engaged if we did that. And they could go from seeing these replica animals right to our animal exhibit to see real sheep and cows and goats.”
Blackstone said the exhibit will now be permanent and organizers will be looking for ways to expand it or change it from time to time.
“One year we might add in things that focus on how we make maple syrup,” she said. “There are a lot of possibilities.”