The Burlington County Farm Fair had barely begun Wednesday morning when a lively little goat named Valentine bagged a blue ribbon.
Harrison Layton, 10, beamed as his 5-month-old Boer with its distinctive white body and brown head took a top showmanship prize in the opening round of the 4-H Goat Show.
"Pretty good," Harrison, of Juliustown, said modestly as Valentine bleated in the blessed shade of the South Show Tent.
The fair blends competition with elements of a carnival and a craft show, offering an all-ages excuse to sample cotton candy, "Fresh Pig Roast Sandwiches," and midway attractions with names like "Cuckoo Haus."
The annual celebration of the county's agricultural abundance continues through Saturday at the fairgrounds in Springfield Township. More than 75,000 visitors are expected, manager Rosemary Kay said.
Not far from where the young goat handlers were preparing for the "Champion Milker" contest, Heather Shinn led a Holstein named Taylor out of the fierce sun and into a covered pen.
"She's 11/2 years old and was born and bred on my farm," Shinn, 18, said, as Taylor - who really did look contented - munched hay and ignored a newspaper columnist.
"I'm going to school at Virginia Tech to be a dairy major," Shinn added. "I want a career in the dairy industry. And this farm show is what got me started."
Last year, the event moved from cramped quarters in Lumberton to a 60-acre new fairgrounds on Route 206. About $1.5 million has been spent to improve the site, which also can be used for equestrian shows, county spokesman Ralph Shrom said.
The nonprofit fair's $250,000 cost is underwritten primarily by sponsors, donations, and proceeds from the gate.
"These fairs are great reminders of how diverse and vibrant agriculture is in New Jersey," said Lynne Richmond, spokeswoman for the state Department of Agriculture. "They're like going back in time."
The Springsteen-Sopranos-Snooki stereotypes notwithstanding, the Garden State remains just that. New Jersey's 10,000 farms make up a vibrant agriculture industry, Richmond said.
"We're third in the nation in the production of cranberries and bell peppers, fourth in blueberries, peaches and spinach, fifth in cucumbers, sixth in squash, and seventh in tomatoes," she said.
Among New Jersey's 21 counties, only Hudson, Passaic, and Union do not have a farm fair or similar event, she said.
In Burlington County, dozens of vendors, hundreds of 4-H club and scout troop members, and a whole lot of cows, pigs, sheep, goats, horses, alpacas, and chickens have converged on Springfield.
There's even a tent for the New Jersey All Breed Pigeon Club, where I found the organization's president eager to talk up the virtues of these much-maligned birds.
"A lot of people need to be educated about pigeons, and the fair is a chance to do that," said Francis Stidfole, 66, a Pemberton Township resident with a pungent local accent.
A retired custodian who began raising pigeons as a boy in Mount Holly - "They kept me out of trouble" - he favors a magnificent breed called the Modena, which looks about as much like its nuisance cousins as a cougar resembles an alley cat.
The produce, the products, and the exhibits by organizations such as the Burlington County Historical Society all looked worthy on Wednesday.
But to me, the farm fair is about the animals - and the kids who labor over and love them. I could see the devotion on the faces of Mansfield Township neighbors and pals Nick Kester and A.J. Brooks, who are both 12 and raise a type of sheep called a Lincoln.
They'll show their animals in a wool competition Thursday.
"This is Jelly," Kester said. "She was born on Valentine's Day."
Jackson Township resident Lee Sortore, 12, skillfully clipped, cleaned, and brushed the hooves of a rather uncooperative goat named Lily.
Later that morning, Sortore won a blue ribbon, too.
For more information, go to www.burlingtoncountyfarmfair.com.
(The Gloucester County farm fair is July 26 through 29 in Mullica Hill; Camden County will hold its fair Aug. 3 through 5 in Berlin Township.)