COUNTY FAIRS ARE MORE THAN FOOD AND FUN

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I call it that August smell. In the waning days of summer, the aromas of all the ripening produce, crops and weeds lend their aromas into one unique blend that defines this time of year. It also signals the arrival of county fairs that are happening all across the country and rightfully so because it is at this time of year the biggest and best produce get to go to fair too.

The mention of county fairs brings thoughts of fair food, local bands, top entertainers and generally fun times catching up with friends and neighbors. Sometimes it is easy to get caught up between the cotton candy and fried cheese on a stick and forget what this small slice of Americana is really all about.

Nearly every county in the country has a county fair. They have been around longer than the Cooperative Extension Service which was established in the 1900’s. All 4-H is governed by this program.

It takes so much more than most people realize to bring everything together for one week in the summer for a county fair to take place. Fair staff, volunteers and families donate a lot of time and money to organize, promote and run the county gathering each year. As soon as one year’s events are over, the staff start to make improvements and plan for the following year. The fair that most people experience for one week out of their summer is the summation of a whole year’s worth of preparations.

It is easy to walk among the stands and displays and not realize the significance of this one week out of the year for the area’s youth. Only a parent knows actually how much work a child puts forth with his 4-H fair projects.

Everyone knows how kids compete for top honors and the prized blue ribbons. Yes, 4-H uses the local county fair to highlight the accomplishments of program participants and volunteers. This is certainly the ultimate prize that all kids have their eye on but, if they are lucky, kids come away with things much more valuable than blue ribbons.

First of all, county fairs are held at this time of year for a reason. Many of them have been raising an animal or produce to show at the fair. At this time of year is when their projects, whether plants or animals, are in their prime.

So, their award, or lack of, represents a whole year of hard work, or lack of. If they are showing an animal, they have weigh-ins throughout the year which represent their rate of gain. This is tied directly to what they have been fed, and feed records need to be kept throughout the year. When they show their animal in market class, the animal is judged on how well it is represented; its weight, its bone structure and overall appearance. Though much of this is related to genetics, much of it also reflects how it was fed and cared for during the year.

In showmanship, the animal and owner are judged on how they react to each other and how the animal responds to its owner’s commands. It is usually pretty apparent when a youth has spent time and worked with his/her animal.

In both 4-H and FFA, there are three standards which are represented by blue, red and white ribbons. Each one has its own set of qualifications and when a project is awarded a ribbon, it indicates how well it measures up to the standard. So, each participant is competing against the set standard and not with each other. However, there is still always one grand champion and one reserve grand champion, which provides a prize to aspire to.

All judges are different, with slightly different expectations. I always admire the judge who takes a couple minutes with each entrant and explains what made his/her entry either a winner or a runner-up. This is the best way for the kids to learn how to improve for next year. It is also a good lesson in accepting criticism.

Sadly, sometimes folks get too caught up in how well each one placed. It’s about more than the ribbons. Each county fair is supporting the next generation of leaders. It’s about the hard work that they have put in all year long. For those that didn’t get the ribbon, it’s a chance to know how to make it better the following year.

I love to see the kids when they are doing barn duty, usually two-hour shifts spent watching the animals and mucking out stalls. It’s usually hot, smelly work but it is also a chance for the kids to bond and learn about camaraderie and sharing workloads. It’s also a chance for them to interact with the public and answer questions about their animals and show their knowledge.

Perhaps the most important lesson they can learn is about the modern business world. They keep records to know how much money it has cost to raise their animal all year long. Then, at the fair auction, their exhibit is sold at a premium and, if used wisely, is a good chance for them to create a good nest egg for later on. They learn that hard work pays exactly what you put into it.

It is also about letting go. I would be willing to bet that when every one of these kids got their first show animal, be it a goat, calf, pig, rabbit or anything else, they were given the speech about it is a show animal and they shouldn’t get emotionally attached to it because it will be sold. Yet, when kids spend any time at all with an animal, it quickly becomes a pet. I have seen my grandson on more than one occasion lying on top of his calf or steer and crying his eyes out. Sometimes life’s lessons are hard.

It doesn’t matter if kids are showing an animal, sewing a quilt or giving a presentation, they are learning life skills that will follow them through school, work and all other aspects of society.

We all like to get away from the daily grind of the farm and “go to town” so to speak for one week during the county fair. It’s easy for the real activities and focus to get lost among the commercial exhibits and carnival fun. That’s all right, it’s OK to have fun as long as we don’t lose sight of the real focus of our county fairs which is spotlighting our youth and their accomplishments.

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