When I was a kid, I went to the county fair every year. I had three objectives: ride rides, eat greasy food, and flirt with boys. I secretly thought the 4-H kids hanging around the barns were boss. They perched on stalls all calm ‘n cool, pitchfork in hand, like they owned the place.
I wanted to be that kid who had a cow to lead all around the fair. I dreamed of riding a horse with a number pinned to my saddle. But I was a city kid with no chance of entering that elusive world of ribbons, hay and livestock.
After moving to the country, I thought it would be fun to sign my kids up for 4-H. I figured 4-H was compulsory to country living. And what parent’ doesn’t live vicariously through their kids sometimes?
4-H offers kids the opportunity to learn about and exhibit “projects” which essentially means categories of interest … like photography, poultry, horses, food science, crafts and such. The kids gain skills and knowledge in their project areas through workshops and self-directed learning. And though there’s a lot of online information for 4-H families, I didn’t access any of it. So I was oblivious going in to our first fair.
Our first year, Obbe insisted on Silkie chickens for his poultry exhibit. But the only Silkies I could find were still babies and I wasn’t sure which category to enter them in since the chicks were too young to be sexed. I guess no one buys chicks two weeks before the fair.
I crossed my fingers and hoped that in this age of tolerance, no one would mind if I just assigned a gender for my chicks to identify with. At the very least, I doubted anyone would get up in their private business to verify my choice. After a phone conversation with a lovely mom whose son won grand champion in every chicken event he ever entered, I was reassured that if I showed up with chicks the barn manager would sort it all out.
The chicken savant’s mom had it wrong.
At chicken drop off, the barn manager was not thrilled with my son’s androgynous baby birds. The cages are designed for grown birds and ours could escape. She hemmed and hawed over what to do, hinting that perhaps we should scrap the chicken entry altogether. After some deliberation a UN meeting, she begrudgingly assigned a white pigeon cage for the chicks.
While chatting with other chicken families, I was stunned to learn that there is actually a chicken show. And judging involves being interviewed by a judge in front of a crowd. I was pleasantly surprised by this news. My shy son was not happy.
A nice chicken enthusiast offered a private tutorial on chicken show technique: You have to wear a solid color shirt, preferably white. Face the judge at all times. Know every last detail about anatomy and your particular breed because you can be asked anything from the breed history to the number of points on the comb to how many eggs it’s expected to lay in a given year. You have to WASH the chickens.
For the love! Who knew this world even existed?
That year, my son was the only kid showing genderless baby chicks he knew nothing about, with poop caked on their feet and wearing his sister’s white shirt.
Then came the year my kids decided to show our goats. Do you think we knew ANYTHING about showing goats? We looked online and called the goat farm and still aren’t clear. We did find out we have to shave them. It didn’t sound too hard and the farmer on YouTube’s goat stood there like a little lamb during the grooming session. Ours didn’t. She leaped around, yanked her head and bleated in protest like we were trying to kill her. I felt like I was having an out of body experience. All the while thinking, “Am I really shaving a goat right now?”
When we were done, she looked absolutely ridiculous. I posted a pic online and one of my friends commented, “Please don’t take this the wrong way but as I was scrolling through Facebook my first thought was, ‘Oh, the animal rescue I follow must be taking in goats with mange now too.’ ” Yes. My kid’s goats looked like they had mange. It’s everyone’s favorite way to make a splash in the show ring.
Each year, leading up to the fair, I scramble to get vet signatures, horse blood tests, stall reservations, volunteer assignments, and animal ID forms in order. The kids research and craft and cut and paste for their educational exhibits. We have to bathe three horses and haul hay, feed, saddles, and grooming supplies up to the fairgrounds. We make stall decorations and buy the proper show attire.
I have two graduate degrees and can’t remember this kind of stress and confusion over any assignment ever.
So why do I keep doing this?
I am proud to be part of this organization. Turns out, 4-H kids are boss! Every year while I am standing in the judging barn, I’m blown away by the high quality projects these kids research, sew, craft, photograph and construct. It is fun to watch the kids enthusiastically explain their projects to attentive judges during the interviews – which are half of their score. I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the scores of adults investing in kids by volunteering as judges, barn managers, instructors and mentors. I get misty watching it all unfold. And while I always knew farm animals at the fair were brought by kids, I didn’t realize how hard they work to research their breeds and the skills involved in caring for and showing them.
Being part of the behind the scenes efforts at the fair has given me a great appreciation for spectators, too. Because without the spectators, the kids wouldn’t have an audience to show off their hard work.
So as you wander around the fair, be sure to congratulate all the kids you see caring for their animals. Ask questions and give them a chance to share their knowledge. Watch some of the animal shows. Stop by the 4-H barn and check out all the educational exhibits. And by all means, give the 4-H moms a high five … and a cheese curd.
P.S. 4-H is open to all youths – you don’t have to live in the country to participate. And the project areas span everything from technology to performing arts to animals. You really should check it out! See you at the fair!