Harvest Festivals: The Essential Guide for Urbanites

Article by: Alison Bing

Thu September 12, 2013 | 00:00 AM

The panic begins inside the corn maze.You wanted an autumnal getaway from the city, but you're way out of your element. You're not in Kansas anymore. Or maybe you are. 

Video credit: CNN

This time of year, it can be hard for urbanites – not known for rural geography skills – to distinguish one cornstalk-packed field from the next, let alone tell harvest festivals apart. Too bad, because there are better times to be had this fall outside cities, once you escape the corn maze. Look for these attractions:


City folk take pride in being hard to shock: you've been around, seen a few things. This isn't your first time at the rodeo - except when it actually is. Eight seconds if you're lucky before you land teeth-first in the dirt. Watch through your hands, and hope they don't bring the clowns. Rodeo clowns aren't funny; they're plain crazy. Outside Wall Street, who would accept a job distracting crowds from a rampaging bull?

Photo credit: Larry Jacobsen

Hog Runs

But there is a lighter side to livestock at harvest festivals: petting zoos reveal that barnyard animals are just as adorable as pets, only more edible. The farm animal competition not to be missed is the hog run, because big pigs have their own agendas. For some porcine athletes, wallowing tops winning. They are not wrong.

Video credit: Ryan Cornetta

All-You-Can-Eat Pie

Pigging out is expected at harvest festivals, and makes crowds go wild at the obligatory pie-eating competition. Before you sign up to stick your face in a pie, watch and learn – the manic glint in the eyes of would-be-champion pie-eaters dims about 20 seconds in, when contestants realize that they're actually participating in pie aversion therapy.

Video credit: Hawaii Stream

For ambitious eaters, harvest festivals are warm-ups for the World Pie-Eating Championships in the English village of Wigan, where the pies are meaty but surprisingly small: national healthy eating guidelines have downsized the pies and changed the rules from most eaten to fastest gulped. Scandals have rocked the competition – the sputum-gravy rumor, soft-palate injuries from overzealous microwaving, that time when a sneaky dog technically won – but it's still the toughest village-on-village competition west of Manchester. Also, crucially: there is beer.

Competitive Day-Drinking

Far-fetched as it seems to city dwellers, beer and wine come not from surly corner store-owners, but from plants. When those plants are harvested in fall to make more wine and beer, there is a sudden glut of booze. New wine usually gets stashed away to build character for cold nights - but the temptation to drink it immediately is powerful, which explains France's nationwide festivals honoring Beaujoulais Nouveau Day .

But most excess harvest-time hooch never makes it to the city, due to country drinking games that involve chucking an object at another object. Once you start, it's hard to quit cornhole, horse shoes (extreme!)...

Video credit: Mike J Sloat

...and the only British Commonwealth sport with drink-holders as standard equipment: lawn bowling. Rules vary; you do not necessarily have to drink when you miss, but it helps.

Hoedowns & Hayrides

Another effective way to eliminate excess beer is called Oktoberfest . Technically it's a German tradition, but apparently Germany lost it in a war to Wisconsin. This is good news, because lederhosen are entirely too binding once the beer kicks in and the square-dancing hoedown begins.  Unsexy as it sounds, a barn dance is a time-honored, socially acceptable form of mate-swapping, from the classic Appalachian hootenanny...

Video credit: Mister Stereo

...to Brittany's UNESCO-protected fest noz.

Traditions vary, but here's the general rule: put on some boots, do what you're told by the caller, and link elbows with whoever comes your way. If you hit it off, hop a hayride. Small talk is beside the point - no one can hear over the roar of a John Deere. By peculiar coincidence, America's annual baby boom is in August, nine months after harvest hoedowns and hayrides. 

Folk Art

Harvesting leaves a lot of extra stuff lying around barnyards, besides hay and babies. Fall brings a bumper crop of cheerfully pagan crafts made with corn husks and gourds, from dolls to jack-o-lanterns.

But what many makers consider a hobby, urban collectors call folk art – and no one wants to miss out on the next Antiques Roadshow folk art sensation.

Americana dealers and Smithsonian curators troll established fairs like the Folk Art Festival of New England , but you can find spirited original works at local harvest festival arts and crafts stalls.  

Now that you're practically a naturalized citizen of country festivals, you won't need an expert appraiser to appreciate handiwork that captures the abundant joy of the harvest. Go forth, urbanites, be bold in your harvest festival adventures! And if you're still hestitant to leave your urban confines, here are a few of our favorite fall festivals...all within a pumpkin's throw of major cities:

Grand National Rodeo in San Francisco

Half Moon Bay Art & Pumpkin Festival near San Francisco

Calabasas Pumpkin Festival near Los Angeles

Highwood Pumpkin Festival near Chicago

Zum Schneider Oktoberfest in New York City

NYC Barn Dance in New York City

Samuel Adams Octoberfest in Boston