Caramel corn, elephant ears, tractor pulls, amusement rides, youth competition and so much more! From mid-summer through fall it is county fair time in this part of the country.
I remember as a kid I looked forward to our local fair all year long. It meant a day of eating everything that wasn’t good for you, riding the scary rides and seeing some magnificent animals. One aspect that is a big part of county fairs that I was never involved in was 4-H. It’s not good, it’s not bad that I didn’t experience it, it just wasn’t a part of my life until our grandson starting showing a dairy starter calf and steer four years ago.
First of all, I was confused as to what the difference was between a fair billed as a 4-H fair and a Grange fair like I had gone to all my life. I did some serious digging.
A Grange is a fraternal organization in the United States that encourages families to band together to promote and encourage the livelihood of the community and agriculture. Thus, a Grange fair is the culmination of the Grange’s year’s work. The Grange fair began in 1874 when Leonard Rhone encouraged his Progress Grange to join with sister Granges in organizing a picnic to introduce friends and neighbors to the Grange organization and the benefits of the fraternity.
To date, the largest Grange fair is the Centre County Grange Encampment and Fair held each year at Grange Park at Centre Hall, Pennsylvania. It boasts 950 tents, 1,300 RVs, 7,000 exhibitor items and hundreds of concessions.
Though 4-H is often a part of a Grange fair, many county fairs are not associated with any Grange and primarily promote the 4-H organization. 4-H is a youth organization that is administered by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture of the United States Department of Agriculture. Their mission is to “engage youth to reach their fullest potential while advancing the field of youth development.” The 4-H symbol, represented by a four-leaf clover, stands for the four areas of personal development: head, heart, hands and health.
There is something for everyone in 4-H. Projects run the gamut from cooking and baking, woodworking, sewing and countless other creative projects to actually raising an animal and showing it. Livestock competitions are the most involved, most expensive, and probably, the most rewarding of all 4-H participation.
Depending on the type of animal a 4-H youth decides to raise, the youngster purchases the animal during the winter or spring before fair. Animals are weighed periodically to keep track of weight gain, and the youth must keep accurate feed records so judges know how much hay and grain each animal was fed during the year.
I never realized how rigorous the criteria for showmanship was until our grandson started showing his starter calf and steer. There are certain requirements for each class, and judges observe how each individual meets or fails these guidelines compared to other youth in the same class.
Choosing an animal is important because judges look for how an animal is built, such as how trim its middle and flanks are, how deep its chest is and if it has a matching set of legs (one’s not shorter than the other). Those are some pretty stiff standards!
After choosing the best-built animal you can, the single item that sets youngsters apart and makes one shine over another in showmanship is how much each has worked with their animals during the year. Judges look at how well an animal behaves, how well it responds to its owner’s commands and the preparation of the animal. The more practice an animal has on a lead rope, the more it is around people and the better bond it has with its owner all show in the show ring.
Of course, bonding with the owner has its pros and cons. Children raise these steers, calves, goats, pigs and whatever all year long and many become pets. 4-H'ers know from the get-go that the end goal is to sell the animal at a premium price but that still doesn’t take away from the fact that their pet won’t be coming home with them from fair. There are just no words to describe seeing the youngsters trying to say goodbye after the sale. But, as they say, “This is life.”
Then there is the 4-H auction. This is a whole other ballgame, and every year I need it explained to me how it works. In a nutshell, businesses pay premium prices to encourage youngsters to raise animals and get involved. Determined by the market, there is the support price that businesses promise to pay for each class of animal. Then, throughout the year the youngsters talk to relatives, family friends and other local businesses to ask for their support at the auction. An animal may be sold to one or more individuals, and the children then get the support price plus whatever amount is bid above this price.
This is a win-win situation because the youngsters get a good chunk of money and businesses get their names promoted. The buyer must decide if he or she wants to keep the animal or let it go to slaughter.
All in all, 4-H is a great organization. It gives youngsters something to do, something to look forward to during fair and a means of making some serious money for college. It also teaches them responsibility. And, let’s not forget all the camaraderie that comes from mucking out stalls and generally hanging around the barns. Priceless!
There are always a few parents out there who want their children to be the best so the parents do a lot of the work themselves instead of letting the children do it. There is nothing wrong with parental helping, all youngsters need constructive guidance, but doing it all is such a disservice to the child and robs her or him of some good life lessons. Responsibility for something other than yourself, hard work and perseverance are lessons that will prepare youth for the rest of their lives.
I have watched Wyatt work harder at his 4-H animals than anything else, and I have seen how much fun and pride he has during fair week. If I had it to do it over, I think I might try this 4-H thing. There is something good going on here.