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Food, fun and entertainment: The Manatee County Fair is here

More than 150 swine have arrived. The midway has been assembled, complete with four new rides. And the famed fair food is ready to fill hungry stomachs.

The 2017 Manatee County Fair is here.

Hailey Barnes milked her cow in the Mosaic Arena on Wednesday afternoon, getting ready for another year of showing at the fair that night. Barnes said it’s her seventh year showing at the Manatee County Fair. But for the 18-year-old Lakewood Ranch FFA member, this fair is a little special because not only is it her first year showing this particular dairy cow, it’s also her last.

Barnes is used to the hours of prep work that go into getting her milker ready for the show Wednesday night. Every day, she feeds, walks and milks the cow before bathing, drying and grooming it to make sure everything is perfect for the show ring.

“To get ready for show we have to bathe them, make sure her udders are all bagged up and that she’s show-quality ready. Then we have to clip her so that her body line is even and you can see every dairy characteristic of her,” Barnes said.

Her mother, Jessica Pope, says the family gets through the stress of getting three kids and several animals in and out of the show pen with a lot of teamwork. Leroy Pope, 15, and Tucker Pope, 9, also show animals at the fair, including dairy cows and swine.

The family tradition of showing at the Manatee County Fair started when Barnes joined the FFA club, Pope said. This year, she also joined a 4-H club, she added.

“It’s a lot of stress, it’s a lot to do,” Pope said. “We’re here until 11 or 12 at night, and the kids are back at 6 a.m. the next morning.”

Luckily, there are dozens of other families who are all working toward the same goal.

“Everybody here is family. Our reward is seeing the kids show,” Pope said.

Teamwork between families keeps show-prep activities running smoothly, and Holley Simon is no stranger to stepping in to help where others may need it. Simon was helping a friend’s daughter get ready Wednesday.

“As parents, we come and try to do whatever. Stand in line to bathe (the animals), do whatever.”

Across the Mosaic Arena, 15-year-old Morgan Hoffman was prepping her swine, Aspen, for Thursday night’s show.

Brushing, wiping down Aspen with baby wipes, cleaning out ears and eyes, all takes about one to two hours, Hoffman said, to be show-ring ready.

The hardest part is saying goodbye when Hoffman sells Aspen at the livestock sale.

“I get sad toward the end of the week, but it’s exciting to show and have the good times before,” Hoffman said.

Outside the bustle of the Mosaic Arena, the fairgrounds were mostly deserted. Here and there, someone setting up a ride, game booth or food truck, but most were already intact Wednesday afternoon.

Beginning at 5 p.m. Thursday and running through Sunday, Jan. 22, Palmetto’s Manatee County Fairgrounds will be bustling with thousands of Manatee County residents and visitors enjoying the 101st annual fair.

When the fair gates open Thursday, the exhibit buildings as well as the Belle City Amusements Midway will open. The swine show will be at 6 p.m. Thursday.

“We’re just looking for everyone to come out, have a wonderful time here at the fair with their families and just make memories,” said Daniel West, fair manager. “All of those young people that come out to our fair, they tend to come back and enjoy years later just because of the memories of coming with their parents and grandparents from former years.”

On the heels of the 2016 fair, which was the 100th, the 2017 fair’s theme is “Fair Fun 101,” which emphasizes agriculture education at the fairgrounds, 1303 17th St. W.

“We want to educate the citizens of Manatee County about the importance of agriculture here in Manatee County,” West said. “We’d like for them to come out and just enjoy watching our youth in action in our livestock program and folks that are exhibiting in our arts and crafts department and just come out and have a wonderful time at the Manatee County Fair with wonderful entertainment, fair food and all the wonderful rides that we have on the midway.”

In Manatee County, it is a total county fair.

“We’re not the smallest fair in the state,” he said. “We’re not the largest. We are kind of nestled right in the middle. But we have one of the largest youth livestock programs in the state of Florida for a single county, with over 600 exhibitors in the youth livestock.

Manatee River Fair Association President Jon Neuhauser said he hopes this year’s fair will be even bigger and better than last.

“Year in and year out, we put on a fantastic fair,” he said. “I think it’s going to be better.”

Claire Aronson: 941-745-7024, @Claire_Aronson

Sara Nealeigh: 941-745-7081, @saranealeigh

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