Trophies and purple ribbons are pretty. They also collect dust. Standing in a championship class is an awesome feeling. But you learn more from standing at the bottom and earning the right to be first. Blue ribbons awarded to a child who sits nervously with a judge build self-esteem. Yet the real lessons have nothing to do with the color of the ribbon; it’s about remembering the pride of work created through the project preparation. I’ve watched my daughter experience this all week as her non-livestock exhibits were judged – and explained she’ll soon forget the color of her ribbons, but she’ll always carry the lessons in her heart from the fair.
4-H fair season evokes memories of carnivals, cotton candy and cute kids for many visitors. It’s representative of a simpler time, where families went to create memories before YouTube, Disney and iPads. I know because going to fairs was the only vacation my dairy-farming family ever took when I was growing up. I also spend countless hours watching visitors at the county and state fair to study how they react and encourage 4-Hers to answer a visitor’s unasked question. Little do most of those visitors know what goes into spent in getting the kids, animals, and projects ready for a fair.
It’s even more difficult to see the life lessons at work behind the scenes. The cake decorating exhibit doesn’t list “at least 20 hours of practice, unending patience and serious use of meringue required” – nor does the foods display say “recipe development, food chemistry, nutrition and 6 a.m. baking learned here.” The poise, polish and presence on stage is a bit more obvious in fashion revue, but the sewing project needs a poster showing “perseverance, desire and a sense of style needed” – not to mention an extraordinarily patient teacher (which I am not and am thankful to a talented seamstress friend who has given my daughter a lifelong gift).
Nowhere on the fairgrounds is there a sign reading “it takes a community to build a 4-Her” but as I watch generations reach out to embrace more 4-Hers, volunteers spend hundreds of hours teaching and leaders carefully organize an experience that can benefit children from all walks – I am so proud of our Boone County 4-H family. 4-H is unquestionably a family affair – and fair weeks build memories that bond families. After all, where else do you have the opportunity to fight with your child about the silliest details, bleach white clothes in a moment’s notice and pick straw/animal hair out of every article of clothing? On a more serious note, 4-H families are built by the parents willing to drive their child 45 minutes multiple times a week to lease a cow, a father who spends an afternoon helping his child build a display, or a mother in the kitchen endlessly helping a child learn the craft of baking.
The highlight of my family’s 4-H experience centers on our beloved registered Holsteins and helping with our county’s dairy project. July is pretty much filled with cow hair, manure and clippers. As you may have followed last year, my daughter purchased her first heifer and is more than a little proud of her – to the point that the heifer has been on a diet for the last month because she was quite fat. The beloved heifer “Ving” is now a big spring yearling, spoiled by being regularly dressed up by little girls and loves to try to bully anyone she can, including grown men. Yet there is a certain little girl who has worked with the heifer non-stop and the pair make quite a sight.
I have watched 90 pounds of tough girl learn to coax a very stubborn 800 pounds through brilliant animal handling and then turn around and stomp off, screaming in frustration when Ving got away. I have watched my daughter learn about genetics and calving ease through selecting sexed semen to breed her next generation. I have listened to her have complete conversations with her heifer while on the washrack and sing as she continues to learn the “art of the blend” while clipping the perfect dairy hairstyle. I have seen her confidence grow as she realizes she has all the skills (and biceps) she needs to show with style. It’s been an honor and privilege to be in the front row to witness the life lessons taught by 4-H dairy cattle – alongside the many wonderful people who have surrounded her in that teaching. She shows next week and I’m so excited for her (and all of the kids in our dairy project); I’ll be the one in the background praying for no bovine bullying while trying to hide my tears of joy and pride.
Explaining the lifelong benefits of 4-H to people who have never experienced it firsthand is nearly impossible. Yes, the paperwork is grueling, the hours are countless, kids whine, parents grumble and black belt time management skills are required. But nothing can replace the pride in a 4-Her’s face on a job well done, watching them learn the importance of helping others and seeing young people find their passion in life. How can you be sure that’s happening for the youth in your life? There’s no better place than the fair!