CAPE MAY COUNTY — Becca Thompson charged her horse, Rascal, through the barrel races Saturday at the Cape May County 4-H Fair.
The horses circle three barrels at breakneck speed, turning at impossibly sharp angles, before racing back. Rascal finished in 23 seconds, which was pretty good, Thompson said.
“It’s an adrenaline rush. He just gets so excited to go,” she said of her horse.
After it was over, she lingered in the saddle in her sequined riding costume, enjoying the moment. After 10 years of competition and her final year of eligibility, Thompson, 19, of Middle Township, was feeling wistful about her last race in 4-H.
“It’s a little sad that it’s over, but they want to me come back and be a leader,” she said.
The fair celebrates achievements of the children and teenagers participating in the clubs. Few of them live on farms these days.
South Jersey is becoming less agricultural as suburban neighborhoods take the place of fields that used to hold lima beans and tomatoes.
New Jersey lost 9 percent of its farmland during the construction boom between 2002 and 2007 before the recession. But the number of farms since 2007 has actually increased slightly since the recession to 10,327.
But the 4-H Fair remains a popular attraction in the county.
Kaitlin Tracey, 24, of Middle Township said she doesn’t know many farmers but she still likes the fair.
“We come every year. The kids like to see the animals. We stay for the chicken dinner,” she said.
Attendance was small Saturday afternoon and everyone blamed the oppressive heat. Normally, the fairgrounds run a parking shuttle to the Crest Haven Complex to handle the overflowing crowds but the nearby parking lot still had plenty of spaces.
“We were just talking about that. I think it’s just too hot,” Tracey said.
Rachel Coulter, 18, of Dennis Township, showed off her quarter horse, Baby. She has been riding since she was 4 and competed for nearly as long.
“I just like having a horse to take care of and be your responsibility,” she said. “I like the fair. For me it’s all about helping all the kids get ready. I look forward to it every year.”
Spectators said the fair hasn’t changed much over the years. Children played in the bounce castles and water slides. A live band performed by the picnic grove where they were serving a grilled-chicken dinner.
Peter Avagliano, of Galloway Township, stood in a paddock of puppies that he brought for his 4-H club, which gets dogs ready to serve the blind. He and 4-H members from Cape May and Atlantic counties teach the puppies basic commands such as sit, come and stay. But they also help to socialize the dogs and introduce them to different environments.
“We take them all over, the Cape May-Lewes Ferry, baseball games. The more they’re out and about, the more calm they’ll be,” he said.
Candidate dogs then go for specialized training before being paired with a vision-impaired or blind owner.
And on Saturday with an electric fan blowing mist from a garden hose, the dogs had the coolest spot at the fair.