The 4-H experience and the county fair

As I sift through hundreds upon hundreds of photos taken at last week’s York County Fair, I see so many great successes and experiences proclaimed.

It’s that time of year again – time for the county fairs.

And the memories of the past are just as strong as ever because there is nothing quite like it.

The smell of manure in the air, the whiff of straw and wood chips, the sounds of bellering at the wash rack, the taste of sweat running down your face onto your lips . . . what’s not to love?

There’s the sight of so many T-shirts with the green clover emblem and the show boxes strategically placed in the barns. There are the whirring sounds of the clippers and generators, the voice on the loud speaker announcing which class will be up next.

The best part of the county fair, in my opinion, is the part that the fewest people actually see or experience … and really, it’s the reason the fair started in the first place. The agricultural side of the county fair is the one that sticks with you the hardest, ingrains itself in your brain.

I swear, no matter how old I get or how much time I spend away from it … the second my senses detect the reality of livestock shows, I might as well be 10 years old all over again. Oh, the memories of carefully cleaning out the ears of my heifer, Hillary, with her awful and familiar breath in my face. The memories of her slamming me into the side of the show ring because she had severe hormonal issues. The memories of beating my brother in showmanship. The memories of seeing my dad wink at me from the sidelines, as the judge moved me up the line, meaning he liked what he saw. The memories of hanging our ribbons and placing our trophies in the vicinity of our animals afterward.

Being at a livestock show, of any kind, or even just seeing pictures from afar makes me feel 10 … or 8 … or 14 . . . I spent all those ages at the county fair, immersed in showing cattle and being part of the experience. So it’s no wonder that I love to see it continues on . . . no matter what the world is like right now.

So many things change over time … but this art form, this business, this family project … it’s still the same.

Sure, some things are different than they were back in the day. When I was a kid, we had to wear ALL WHITE to show cattle. For real … ALL WHITE. And you had to stay particularly clean for showmanship . . . hard to do when you’re just a kid and manure is plentiful with instantaneous distribution. We always showed in the afternoon, so lunch came beforehand . . . we weren’t allowed to get dressed until the food was gone. But still, someone always ended up with something on their pristine white clothes … food, manure, mud, vomit, you name it.

Today, kids can wear blue jeans … which kills at least half the potential of being filthy. And kids today have cooler boots to wear, much better than our awful, pointed-toed cowboy boots that pinched the feet in an unnatural way. Today’s kids’ feet are still protected while being stomped on … but they look better and surely feel better, too.

But it’s still hot out … can’t have a county fair unless it’s August. So the sweat factor is still an issue. There’s nothing like seeing their young, red faces, eyes squinting in the sun as they move with halters in hand . . . so hot they want to strip down and jump in some water, but they’re determined to get inside the ring to see what’s going to happen next.

Of course, someone always cries. It’s inevitable, because there are so many factors in play. There’s competition, hard work, frustration, elation, irritation, disappointment, excitement, diligence, dedication, all happening at one time. So it doesn’t take much … a runaway animal, a hoof in the wrong place, being defeated, maybe even winning the big prize … to make the tear ducts open.

After all, months of hard labor, expense, experience and loyalty have gone into this one defining moment.

I remember feeling sick with anxiety and nervousness before the fair … and then utterly disappointed when the whole thing was over. It was like the entire summer had built up to that moment … and when it was over, whether good or bad, well, it was over.

And I love the fact that kids are still willing to work … especially when you hear so many people say “kids today don’t want to have to do anything.” When you see them strain their little bodies, maneuver animals that are either four times their size or run five times faster than they do . . . you can’t help but be impressed.

And that also goes for all the other 4-H and FFA activities that take place … the sewing, cooking, baking, canning, photography, small engines, educational posters, etc. A lot of work and creativity went into the special things that are displayed for competition.

So as I look at the photos of how the 4-H tradition continues – and the photos of all the young success stories here – I have to smile. Smile at my memories and be so glad that this current generation still gets the chance to have those experiences and make memories of their own.


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