Each year since she was in middle school, Lawrenceville resident Princess Brown has stopped by the Gwinnett 4-H Farm Friends barn when she attends the Gwinnett County Fair.
The barn, affectionately called “The Big Red Barn” by 4-H officials, has become one of Brown’s must see spots to visit at the fair, and this year was no different.
Brown, 19, visited the fair on its opening day on Thursday, and she inevitably made her way to the barn, paid $1 and walked around petting rabbits, baby ducks, a donkey, sheep, goats and a cow, oohing and awwing as she interacted with each animal. There is one reason she likes to come back year after year.
“The tiny little chicks and they’re just born,” Brown said.
Brown’s friend, Norcross resident Dejah Taylor, 20, added, “She’s a child at heart and animals excite her easily.”
Gwinnett 4-H officials and members see a lot of reasons to celebrate at this year’s Gwinnett County Fair.
While the fair is back after taking a year off in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year also marks the 30th year that 4-H has hosted its Farm Friends exhibit, which is the organization’s big fundraiser of the year, at the fair. Visitors pay $1 per person to come in and see and touch farm animals, and also read information about each animal.
“Last year would have been our official 30th anniversary, so instead we are celebrating 30 years this year,” Gwinnett County 4-H agent Pam Bloch said. “That is a really big deal for us.
“We had all kinds of plans going into last year that we wanted to be able to do. We’ve definitely had to streamline some ideas and they’ll actually probably be put into place next year when we feel hopefully (COVID) numbers will be better and we’ll be able to do a lot more, but we’re still excited we were able to be here this year.”
The fair opened Thursday and visitors who stopped by the Farm Friends barn on opening day got a special treat. Several baby chickens who had been in an incubator hatched the morning that the fair began.
That allowed opening day visitors to have a chance to see the chicks just starting to get used to life outside of eggs.
As she reflected on the Farm Friends’ 30-year milestone, Bloch recalled how the exhibit has grown over the years.
“This Farm Friends experience has really gone from starting out in a tent and slowly building, thanks to the help of the Fair Board and multiple other sponsors that have kind of helped with the dairies,” Bloch said. “In the past, we had Mayfield Dairy. This year, we have PET Dairy from out of South Carolina. So, they brought their cow, Caroline, from South Carolina, down for us ...
“This year, we weren’t able to get quite as much milk as we always hope to have, but we’ll be able to at least provide milk for the daycares and pre-schoolers that are coming in the mornings.”
Gwinnett 4-H member Alexa Gamradt, 14, has been a volunteer at the exhibit since she was 10. One of the aspects of the exhibit that she enjoys is getting to see how people react to the animals.
“My favorite part is, No. 1, seeing how happy it makes people when you let them pet the animals and stuff,” Gamradt said. “ I think it just, especially the little ones, lights up their day. I also like animals, so being able to pick them up and whatnot, like the baby ducklings that I don’t get to be around much, I think is some of the best parts of it.”
Former Gwinnett 4-H member Malachi Young, who is now a student at Georgia State University, came back this year as a volunteer to help with the exhibit. This marks the 8th year that Young has worked at the Farm Friends exhibit.
“Every year I’ve done it, I’ve gotten a little bit more involved — and of course the older you are, the more you get to do — but I just enjoy getting involved with the animals and playing with the animals and showing them off to our community,” Young said.
Due to the ongoing threat of COVID-19, there are limitations to how much 4-H is doing this year to honor the 30 years of Farm Friends. Some activities 4-H is doing to mark 30 years of Farm Friends this year, however, include handing out special 30 years stickers to kids who visit the exhibit and handing out special books about the Farm Friends’ star donkey, Ellie Mae, who was born at the fair 11 years ago and celebrated her birthday the day before this year’s fair opened, to preschool and daycare groups.
“(The book is) all about how the goats are trying to throw a surprise birthday party for Ellie Mae because her birthday is during the Gwinnett County Fair,” Bloch said. “It’s a lot of fun to have that experience, and it kind of brings it all together for the kids that have come to visit the fair and then go back and they talk about (it and say), ‘Ellie Mae? Wait, I met Ellie Mae. What do you mean?’ “
There are precautions being taken because of the ongoing pandemic. Attendees are also being asked to wear face masks in the barn, since it is indoors. 4-H is providing masks to people who don’t have one of their own.
Additional hand sanitizing stations were installed and there is a greater emphasis on washing hands before leaving the barn — something that was already encouraged at the exhibit before the pandemic because, after all, visitors are touching farm animals while they are there.
Once inside, however, visitors can pet Ellie Mae, as well as a cow, four rabbits, a pair of sheep, two goats and and several baby ducks. They can also work a cow milking simulation and kids can get their pictures taken in a saddle.
“I just like farm animals, I want to have a farm some day,” said Dejah Taylor, who at one point said “the sheep are amazing.”
Lawrenceville resident Amanda Moulder visited the exhibit with her family on Thursday, and it was their first time seeing the Farm Friends barn. Moulder said she enjoyed seeing Ellie Mae.
“I think the donkey,” she said when asked which her favorite animal was. “(She) was the most gentle and wants to be petted.”
Lilburn youth Kate Breiding, 10, said she enjoyed seeing the rabbits and the baby chickens, but she liked everything about the Farm Friends exhibit. She said she’d like to come back and see the exhibit again in future years when she visits the fair.
“It’s very interesting and it’s cool to see these animals,” Breiding said.
And, of course, Princess Brown had plenty of favorites of her own.
“They (also) have sheep and they didn’t have chickens before, but now they have chickens,” she said as she excitedly looked around at the various animals at the barn.