Summer fairs give a sense of a new normal

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by Hannah Majewski

COVID-19 left many 4-H members unable to participate in their last 4-H experience before heading off to work or college. Long-time participants could not enter the show ring for their “Fit and Show” class, set up an exhibit or camp out with their friends and family at the fairgrounds one last time. For many youth, 4-H at the fair became an integral part of their summer – something they looked forward to every year. COVID-19 took away their chance to say goodbye to something that had become a staple in their lives.

“I was very sad not being able to show at county fairs my last year in 4-H,” said Andie Majewski, a 10-year member of the Switch ‘N’ Horns 4-H Club. “It had become something that I loved and eagerly awaited each year. Missing my last opportunity to see my 4-H friends and family [before leaving for college] and not being able to do what I loved for so long left my 4-H career feeling incomplete.”

The summer of July 2020 felt very different. Mask mandates were being enforced, grocery stores had one-way aisles and work and school had transitioned to remote offices. When the University of New Hampshire transitioned to remote learning and working, this included the youth in the 4-H program (4-H is tied to UNH because the school is a “land-grant university” which staffs Cooperative Extension, the organization in charge of 4-H programming). At this time, 4-H’ers were not allowed to meet in person for activities, and that included the fairs. This marked a historical moment in 4-H. Kim Hudson, a longtime 4-H volunteer and former 4-H member herself, recalled how she felt when the news broke that there would be no 4-H shows for summer 2020.

“Not being able to encourage youth with their cattle projects that they worked hard at was very difficult for me. The youth had worked so hard over the winter and early spring, all to not be able to achieve the result of exhibiting at a fair,” Hudson said.

4-H has a clear traditional element to its organization, even in more modern times today. While today 4-H captures youth with every interest imaginable, its roots are within agriculture. Similarly, county fairs started for agricultural purposes, and thus started the long tradition of 4-H members bringing their projects to their county fairs. This gives youth of all ages the chance to educate the greater public about their exhibits and creates a great opportunity for growth and community involvement. When the pandemic prevented this from happening, many people within 4-H became worried about how this tradition would be maintained.

Throughout summer 2020, 4-H included various types of remote and hybrid programming. Many 4-H members had started to train their animals for a show season and participated in the New Hampshire 4-H Virtual Animal Shows. To participate, members had to take a video of themselves and their 4-H animal project as if they were in the show ring, white shirts and all. Their video would then be entered in the correct species, breed and age category, and be judged against other 4-H members just like a regular show. Judges viewed the videos to place classes and select youth in additional categories like “Best Fit” or “Best Showmanship.” Once the results were announced, ribbons were awarded and mailed to the winners. While this was no substitute for a county fair, it made everyone more eager to return to normal.

After over a year of enduring a pandemic, a new sense of normal is on the horizon. While it’s not over, it has been declared a safe enough environment for 4-H members to bring their animals and exhibits to their local fairs. In coordination with UNH, state 4-H staff worked hard to follow CDC guidance and produce guidelines to keep 4-H members and their families safe. Mary Davis, 4-H animal science field specialist, has been a driving force to get 4-H members back in the show ring with their animals. While the work was tedious, it has paid off.

“I am thrilled that 4-H members will be able to showcase their hard work with their 4-H projects at New Hampshire fairs this year. Our members look forward to these opportunities to showcase their animals to the judges and fairgoers and to chat with the public about their 4-H animal projects. They enjoy the camaraderie and teamwork at the fair and greatly missed it last year,” she commented.

Davis and other 4-H staff are now working around the clock to plan all the typical 4-H animal shows that would happen throughout the summer, such as the NH 4-H State Horse Show and NH 4-H State Livestock Auction.

At this year’s county fairs, there will be a 4-H presence across all of New Hampshire. Fairgoers will be able to find 4-H members in the show ring, exhibit halls and country kitchens. Every county 4-H program is patiently waiting for their fair to come. The 4-H members are excited to return to educating the public about agriculture – and everything else they are passionate about. This year, they will get to experience the result of showing their animal after working with it for so many months.

When traveling to a fair this summer, make sure to stop by the 4-H area. Public support is key to keeping the 4-H traditions alive at the fair. Purchasing a product from the 4-H Food Booth helps to fund 4-H trips and experiences for members beyond the county level. The year 2020 was like no other for 4-H members, but the fair season for 2021 promises a genuine 4-H experience that was so missed by4-H youth and fairgoers alike.

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