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Voices from the 100th Champlain Valley Fair

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Stephen Mease Photography
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Stephen Mease Photography
This hour, Vermont Edition talks with longtime participants of the Champlain Valley Fair on what makes this year special.

Live call-in discussion: For many Vermonters, it's their favorite time of year—that is, fair season.

This hour, our team is taking a trip to the Champlain Valley Fair. We’ll bring you stories of the fair’s history, and speak to some of its performers, vendors and other personalities.

Our guests are:

  • Jeff Bartley, marketing director for the Champlain Valley Expo
  • Steve Bayner, hypnotist performing at his final fair after 30 years
  • Camila Salomoni, who operates six food booths at the fair with her husband
  • Curt Echo, owner of the Sausage Shack
  • Mike Guillemette, maple superintendent
  • Michelle Perry, garden center superintendent
  • Siri Swanson, sheep superintendent with Yankee Rock Farm in Orwell
  • Ryan Sweezey, musician playing with the Vermont Music Showcase
A woman in a blue shirt stands in the middle the three massive pumpkins.
Matthew Smith
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Vermont Public
Michelle Perry has helped organize the showing and judging competitions for produce, like thousand-pound pumpkins, for more than a decade at the Champlain Valley Fair.

Michelle Perry's role as superintendent of the fair's garden center means that anything that grew in the ground–from miniature flower arrangements, to show-stopping produce, to giant sunflowers–is under her purview. She’s been setting up the displays, helping exhibitors, and managing competitions and judging for more than a decade.

"These two pumpkins are 69 days old," she said. "So, 69 days old and you create this giant pumpkin ... but this is early in picking, because this is not a sanctioned weigh-off. So, they have to choose which pumpkin is going to go to their next weigh-off ... with the Vermont Giant Pumpkin Growers. So, they might let a different pumpkin in their patch grow bigger, to do well in that, so they decide which one's going to come here."

Perry says, beyond what people grow, it's the relationships she's cultivated that keep her coming back to the fair.

"I just have always loved helping people enter. I have loved helping people get excited about entering, new exhibitors," she said.

"My best memories are the relationships I've created with exhibitors. That is my favorite piece. I get hugs from people when they come back. And they keep coming back. And people who have left and maybe don't exhibit anymore, they'll come and see me. I had an exhibitor whose husband passed away —she lived in Vermont, and now is in Tucson, Arizona—comes back here, and every every summer she lives in Vermont, and she'll come to see me at the fair. So, it's those relationships that that I've built are just the best for me."

Siri Swanson, of Yankee Rock Farm in Orwell, is the sheep superintendent at the Champlain Valley Fair and gives shearing demonstrations to the public. Watch video below...

Vermont Public’s Connor Cyrus spoke to sheep shearer Siri Swanson and sat in on one of her demonstrations.

Connor Cyrus: We just watched you do a demonstration tell us, for people that are at home listening, what goes into the demonstration?

Siri Swanson So, shearing sheep as a job, and doing it as a public demonstration is a little bit different. But it's all the same principles. Our first focus is always animal safety. And then, next, I'm going to slow down a bit for a demonstration versus when I'm working. So, we bring usually two sheep out, I talk through a little bit of the history of sheep shearing. I'll talk you through the sharing process. And then we talk a little bit about wool and wool quality. And there's always some great questions that come up.

I heard you say that the cost of wool isn’t worth more than the bag that you're putting it in. Why is that?

The global and national wool market is really not in a great spot. So, if you think about it, what are you wearing right now? Most of us have nylon, polyester or synthetic materials, or cotton. Wool is just not the fabric of choice anymore. So, the wool market isn't great. And especially these smaller, really, regional markets don't meet the commodity standards of the wool you might find in Australia or out in the Midwest. So yeah, the wool prices here, if you can even find a place to sell it in Vermont, it's usually less than $1 a pound, even sometimes, like 10 or five cents a pound.

So, then why raise sheep? And why have sheep? And why continue with them as farm animals?

Sheep are so unique. And there's a rich history of raising sheep in the northeast. There's a lot of people who hold on to that. And so that the wool craft is not lost. There's still lots of spinners, felters, people who admire the value of wool, even though the monetary value is not there. And a lot of people are still promoting that. So, a lot of the wool in Vermont that is sold goes to those small niche markets, and there is value in that.

Let's talk about the shearing, and why do we share, if the sheep’s wool isn’t necessarily going to be sold?

Sharing nowadays is really, first and foremost, an animal welfare practice. Any wool breed of sheep, which is most, need to be shorn. They've been domesticated for so long, they don't shed it anymore. If we don't shear them, they'll just keep growing it, and they'll eventually get sick and even die. So, shearing has to be done, whether we want the wool or not, just to keep the animal comfortable and healthy.

Shearing is such an aggressive process. It looks very dangerous, and maybe even painful. Tell me about the experience for the sheep.

Shearing is a full-body sport. They say an eight-hour day of shearing burns the same amount of calories as running between one and two marathons. it really is a very physical activity. And people are always concerned about the sheep, and if we're hurting them, and we do worry about that. We try and keep them as comfortable as possible. The preparation for it, to get the sheep ready, starts even 24 hours in advance. But honestly, it is more dangerous and it's harder on the shear than the sheep always. My partner and I both shear full time, and together, we do around 10,000 a year. On a good day I can share about 80 sheep.

A man holds an award-winning jar of Vermont maple syrup.
Matthew Smith
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Vermont Public
Michael Guillemette is the maple superintendent at the Champlain Valley Fair.

Michael Guillemette, chair of the Chittenden County Sugar Makers Association and the maple superintendent at the fair, has been volunteering at the sugar house on the fairgrounds since 1975, and keeping the maples taps flowing ever since.

"We have maple frosted donuts, maple bread, maple cotton candy, pure maple candy, we have maple kettle corn, and we have our ice cream sundaes, maple creemees, maple-infused milkshakes," he listed.

"We go through about 300 gallons of syrup here, in bulk, and then we package 100 gallons to sell at retail," he added. "It's a fair consumption for the 10-day fair, right?"

He added that it takes a staff of 22 volunteers people to staff the sugar shack over two shifts—44 in all—all volunteers.

As for what kind of maple people are looking for? "They can ask for a specific grade, like a rich amber—it's got a little bit of extra flavor to it, it's seasonal, [produced] at the beginning of the season. You get a lighter, fancier grade, also are more delicate. Towards the end of the season, you get into a robust flavor, right, much stronger. The same density, the same syrup, same tree, nothing changes except for the flavor ... the trend from yesteryear, everybody liked golden amber syrup, fancy syrup. That was very light on the palette. Today's trend, everybody's going to the dark robust, or the rich amber. They want that stronger flavored syrup."

His preference? "As long as as pure maple syrup, I'm happy."

Broadcast live at noon on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet us @vermontedition.

Connor Cyrus joined Vermont Public as host and senior producer in March 2021. He was a morning reporter at WJAR in Providence, Rhode Island. A graduate of Lyndon State College (now Northern Vermont University), he started his reporting career as an intern at WPTZ, later working for WAGM in Presque Isle, Maine, and WCAX Channel 3, where he covered a broad range of stories from Vermont’s dairy industry to the nurses’ strikes at UVM Medical Center. He’s passionate about journalism’s ability to shed light on complex or difficult topics, as well as giving voice to underrepresented communities.
Mikaela Lefrak joined Vermont Public in 2021 as co-host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.
Originally from Delaware, Matt moved to Alaska in 2010 for his first job in radio. He spent five years working as a radio and television reporter, radio producer, talk show host, and news director. His reporting received awards from the Alaska Press Club and the Alaska Broadcasters Association. Relocating to southwest Florida, he was a producer for television news and NPR member station WGCU for their daily radio show, Gulf Coast Live. He joined Vermont Public in October 2017 as producer of Vermont Edition.