Joni Grunow, of Mullica Township, joined a 4-H baton-twirling club at age 9 so she could march with her mom who was in the drum and bugle corps.

She stayed with it through high school, then became a leader and for 37 years has headed up the Twirlybirds 4-H Club.

"We just can't get away from it," Grunow said with a laugh as she headed out to a club practice for the upcoming Atlantic County Fair, to be held Aug. 8 to 10. Grunow has also been a fair association member for the past 25 years, helping organize the annual event.

County fairs are centuries-old tradition in New Jersey. The modern version may have a demolition derby and robotics display in addition to the 4-H animal exhibits, but each honors the past, present and most importantly the future, with generations of families participating.

4-H groups are an integral part of the fair. Some,fairs, including those in Atlantic and Cape May Counties, are run by the 4-H.

The Cumberland County Fair's history records its first fair in 1695 in Greenwich, but for the last 45 years it has been held at the official county fairgrounds in Millville, run by the Cumberland County Fair Association. President Terry Pangburn said the association board currently has 18 directors.

"But if you add associates and friends of the fair you're up to about 30 people, and then each one of them has husbands or wives, kids and friends," all of whom are recruited to help out, said Pangburn, of Millville. "These are people who have grown up with it. And it is totally volunteer. Every penny goes back into the fairgrounds and its operations."

The Cumberland County Fair just ended, but the Cape May and Atlantic County volunteers are just gearing up. Allen Carter has been involved with the Cape May County Fair since 1988, when they needed someone to be in charge of tickets for the barbecue. A friend asked him to help out, and he never left.

"That's my main thing, the barbecue," the Cape May Court House man said. He'll oversee the delivery of more than 3,000 chicken halves and more than three tons of charcoal. His son Allen, who is in the U.S. Marines, has helped out and his entire family attends.

"Because the only time they'll see me those days is if they come to the fair," he said.

All organizations need new blood, and the

4-H groups are always looking for more volunteers and members. A renewed interest in organic food and farming has generated some new clubs and leaders who say they want their children to grow up with an understanding of nature.

Alice Phillips, of the Port Norris section of Commercial Township, has been a 4-H leader for 12 years but first got involved with her son, Zachary Gihorski, who has been in 4-H almost his whole life. Now 24, Gihorski comes back to judge the fair's animal events.

"He joined a goat club when he was eight, and the leader left after a year, so I took over," Phillips said. She has 16 young people in the goat club. Some own their own goats, but others learn with hers on her farm.

"Some families don't have enough land for their own goat, but they learn how to care for them, do bottle feeding," she said.

Brianna Godfrey, 16, of Upper Deerfield Township got involved in the goat club after her family went to a 4-H information session. She said they also make goat-milk fudge, which is very good.

"They are good animals," she said as she led a goat named Prudence out for a demonstration. "We learn how to show them, set them up,"

Terry Hider, of Port Elizabeth in Maurice River Township, said he and his wife, Valerie joined with Bob Hyson, of Commercial Township, to start the 4-H Poultry Pride Club because they wanted to get more understanding of nature and food. Their daughter, Alexis, is raising a huge Black Langshan rooster named Big Boy.

"He's a good bird," Alexis said. "He doesn't hurt anyone and sometimes I play with him. He is my big guy."

Hider said the young people in the clubs learn responsibility for taking care of another living creature and have a greater understanding of where food comes from. The animals are judged at the fair on how healthy and how well-cared for they look.

Hider said they'd like to get bring the birds into schools so students can learn more about them.

"Kids ask so many questions," he said. "They really don't know where food comes from."

Barbara Wilde owns Willow Creek winery in West Cape May and said she recently got more involved in the 4-H and the fair because she wants the younger generation to learn that it is still possible to have a career in farming. Her son Richard raises exotic game fowl. Wilde is volunteering at the fair this year and will use her Willow Creek shuttle to carry people around the fairgrounds, promoting both her business and farming.

"It's amazing how many people are involved in the fair," she said. "And it really teachers the kids a good work ethic."

She said she's thinking about having a farm camp next year so kids can learn more about farming and animal husbandry.

"We'll teach them how to raise a meal," she said.

Contact Diane D'Amico:

609-272-7241

County fairs

The Cape May County Fair, Thursday through Saturday at the fair grounds at 355 Court House/S. Dennis Road in Cape May Court House.

The Atlantic County Fair, Aug. 8-10 at the David C. Woods Fairgrounds on Rt 50 in Galloway Township.