Harrisburg - The myths about the Pennsylvania Farm Show's legendary weather just don't hold water - or snow. Yet if asked, Farm Show veterans describe typical Farm Show weather with two words: cold and snow.
Kristi Rooker, marketing director with the Pennsylvania Beef Council, has attended the Farm Show since childhood. She remembered that part of that fun was preparing for the snowy weather. "Cold," she described the weather. "Snowy. Beef cattle slipping on the ice on their way to tie-outs. And being snowed in."
The National Weather Service Forecast Office in State College has recorded 50 years of Farm Show temperatures, precipitation and snow depth. Calculations reveal that the average high temperature is 35.3 degrees Fahrenheit. Low temperatures average 20.9, while the average mean temperature is 29.
Mike Firestine, Farm Show exhibitor and volunteer, holds a more pragmatic view of the notorious weather. "Sure, ‘Farm Show weather' insinuates inclement weather, since it's that time of the year - January and February," he said. "But it's very unusual for us to have snow during Farm Show week."
While he admitted the blizzard of 1996 to be an exception, "Usually it's a teaser snow - one or two inches - but that's about the extent of it."
Even the infamous blizzard of 1996, which snowed in exhibitors, recorded only 24.4 inches of snow. Of course, two inches of rain and blizzard conditions accompanied it.
Mary Klaus, reporter with the Harrisburg Patriot-News, has covered every day of every Farm Show since 1980. In a 2009 interview for the Farm Show historical records, she recounted her experience with "the state's biggest pajama party," when she stayed overnight at the Farm Show so she wouldn't miss any activities. Nearly 1,800 Farm Show participants were snowed in on Sunday, Jan. 7, 1996.
"The chickens laid eggs that were used to feed people the next morning," recounted Klaus. "Outside, draft horses were hauling supplies into the building from trucks. The snow was too deep for arriving sheep to come in, so they had to stay in their trailers overnight. It was a remarkable time," she said.
"Everybody was in pretty good spirits; we didn't shower or change our clothes, but we had fun," she said.
No other frozen precipitation amount has come close in those years. On opening day in 1964 the show received 14 inches of snow and 1.16 inches of rain. In 1974, 1975 and 1978 between one and 1.5 inches of rain fell each year. The 1991, 1999 and 2007 shows received just over one inch, and the 2005 show received 2.87 inches of rain - the highest rainfall total over the 50 year span. Total snowfall over 50 years is 110 inches, and 1.1 inches of snow per year, and the total rainfall was 26.53 inches with half an inch of rain per year.
Of course, it doesn't take record amounts of wintry precipitation to create a chaotic cocktail. Shows like the 2002 edition, which featured 4.5 inches of snow that was topped with a half-inch of ice, can cause problems not only for getting people to and from the show, but in getting around.
Rooker and other beef cattle exhibitors tie their animals outside overnight. The action promotes hair growth and allows the cattle exercise and fresh air. But taking them outside brings the risk of slippery footing and foul weather.
Breeders insist the cattle don't mind. "Some people are alarmed when cattle have snow on their backs, but this means their insulating layer of hair is working," said Donnie Nichols, longtime Angus breeder and exhibitor. "It's just like you wearing a parka."
In some years beef exhibitors wash their cattle outside. From 2005 to 2008 the week's average highs ranged from 47 to 53.6 degrees. The high on Jan. 6, 2007, and Jan. 8, 2008, was 67 degrees. Seven other days also topped out in the 60s.
Yet the stigma still stands. One young woman interviewed replied that "It's ALWAYS supposed to snow at Farm Show, right? I've heard that ever since I was a little girl!"
This year, with two inches of snow anticipated at the Farm Show grounds, that stigma is reinforced. And this year, with highs hovering around 30 degrees, exhibitors are wearing their Carhartts, rather than light jackets.
An older couple explained that they were touring the Farm Show on Monday to avoid the next day's snowfall. While older attendees and participants were more quick to mention snow, younger ones mentioned the cold more quickly.
Despite warm years and dry years, the myth will be perpetuated by those who remember major floods and snowfalls.
"I've been here for every day since 2001, so I know what the weather's always like," said a man at the Waterloo Boys Two-Cylinder Club booth. "I don't even bother listening to the TV to know what it's like. I know it can be miserable out there without looking! It's Farm Show weather!"
The historic record of Farm Show weather can be found on the National Weather Service State College Forecasting Office website at http://www.erh.noaa.gov/ctp/climate/holidays/FarmShow.php.
The Pennsylvania Farm Show is the largest indoor agricultural event in the nation, featuring nearly 6,000 animals, 10,000 competitive exhibits and 209 commercial exhibitors. The show runs Jan. 8-15 at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex & Expo Center in Harrisburg. Admission is free and parking is $10. Visit www.farmshow.state.pa.us for details.
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