BROOKSVILLE — Brett Nauger is no stranger to country life, but until last year, the 12-year-old had never milked a cow.
He crossed that threshold at the Hernando County Fair and Youth Livestock in 2008 and this year, he was back for more. He got his chance at Cow Town, an interactive exhibit that is making its debut this year at the fair.
Cow Town allows kids to milk a cow and churn the fresh milk into butter or crank it into ice cream.
Brett's family's farm does not have dairy cows, but the sixth-grader at Parrott Elementary School is keenly interested in all kinds of farm critters. At the fair, he's competing with a market hog, market steer, eight rabbits, two turkeys and two chickens.
As for milking a cow, which he did twice on the fair's opening day Monday, Brett said, "If you're country like me, it's normal. If you're city, you might be grossed."
The youngster exhibited a good squeeze and pull on the teats, just in that necessary order. But some of his squirts in the milk pail were off target, splashing on the floor of the cow's enclosure.
The Holstein stamped a bit, turning her head to give Brett the eye. Neither Brett nor Cow Town vendor Michael Sandlofer complained. Cleanup was a given.
Cleanliness was emphasized in a brief introduction by Sandlofer. As kids sat atop commercial milk cans, the farmer told them to wash their hands before milking, wash the cow's teats, wash their hands afterwards, just as on the farm. Those who trekked into the stall also had to walk through a shoe sanitizing bath.
"We use stainless steel," Sandlofer added, saying, "It doesn't grow bacteria."
The children could begin the experience by hand-grinding grain to feed the cow. After harvesting the milk, they could paddle it into fresh butter, then eat it on a cracker. With a hand-cranked, ice-packed tub, they could produce ice cream.
Said Sandlofer, "This is about the word handmade, what their ancestors did."
The farmer-vendor told the youngsters that agriculture's first need is good soil, then healthy grass feed for cows from that soil. Grass also contributes oxygen to the atmosphere, he pointed out. "We have to be good stewards," he emphasized. "We have to take responsibility."
And he quizzed his visitors: "What is a ruminant?" Answer: A cud-chewing animal. "How many stomachs does a cow have?" Answer: four.
As a new exhibitor this year, Cow Town drew the farthest slot on the agricultural side of the fairgrounds, beyond the stall barns. Few fair-goers were aware of the venue or could find it on opening day.
Fair administrator Joy Jackson said that was noted in Monday's late night wrapup meeting of officials, and signs pointing to Cow Town were installed.
The interactive venue, which the Sandlofer family from Lynchburg, S.C., stages at fairs and festivals from Maine to Florida, is free to fair patrons. The fair has paid the venue to set up exhibit but Jackson declined to give the price.
Beth Gray can be contacted at [email protected]