HUTCHINSON — Some consider Norm Karlin the chicken whisperer, because as a kid on a farm in Ellis County, he would sing lullabies to his chickens and rock them to sleep.
The 87-year-old turned his love of chickens into a hatchery business where every spring he’d sell the little peeping chicks in the window of his downtown Hutchinson business, Midwest Feed and Grain.
Now that Kansas agricultural officials have stopped birds from flocking at the Kansas State Fair’s poultry building this year because of avian influenza, Karlin has developed a presentation for young and old alike. He’s answering questions from the audience about all types of fowl. When the audience runs out of questions, Karlin picks a question from a basket of plastic Easter eggs and continues with the lesson.
There might not be live chickens, but set up in a corner of Kansas State University’s Birthing Center, Karlin tells the group about the record hen that laid 374 eggs a year. He explains how the first year a hen lays the most eggs, and while she will continue to lay eggs for about 11 years, she’ll slow down as she ages.
He sticks to questions with hard facts, leaving the philosophical ones — like “What came first, the chicken or the egg?” — for somebody else. However, once he did do an experiment to learn what came first, the white or the yolk. He cracked an egg and poured it on his head to see what would come first. Unfortunately, he couldn’t come up with a conclusive answer because he blinked.
“A master poulterer” is how Susan Sankey, competitive exhibit director, described Karlin.
“He’s so knowledgeable,” said Sankey, who thought having Karlin share his knowledge with schoolchildren attending the fair would be an excellent educational experience. So many of them come to the fair very removed from the farm, they think their food comes straight from the grocery store and have no idea how it was produced.
Others are pretty sharp. Jody Mead, a fourth-grader from Inman, told Karlin she knew all about the avian flu and how it could kill chickens if they were exposed to it.
Along with being a poultry expert for the past 23 years, ever since selling Midwest Feed, Karlin has worked at the fair. He recalled how Elmer Denning, who was in fair administration in the 1990s, told him that before he turned into a couch potato, he should work at the fair.
“There was an 85-year-old man, Ralph Ross, retiring, and I wondered, ‘Why would anyone want to work until they’re 85?,’ “ Karlin said.
Now Karlin is that man, enjoying the work he does around the fairgrounds.
“No two days are the same,” Karlin said. “No two fairs are the same.”
Through the years, he would hatch chicks and ducks in the birthing center. Last year, he invented a duck waterslide for visitors to enjoy in the birthing center. He planned to improve it this year, but the avian flu kept him from making that happen.
But he does much more than talking fowl. He works with the outside exhibitors, from staking their spaces to seeing to their needs. For many years he drove around in a bright-yellow Ford Pinto, with all the tools he needed tossed in the back. These days, he’s driving a golf cart, scooting from building to building, wherever he’s needed.
On a recent morning, in between presenting fowl facts, he picked up all the mail for the state fair, as well as items from a laundry. Some days he’ll go to one of the local restaurants and pick up lunch for Hutchinson Correctional Facility inmates who work at the fairgrounds.
“They don’t make them like Norm anymore,” said Debbie Feyh, assistant to the fair manager. “He’s a true gentleman with a heart of gold.”