The last few weeks I’ve had the opportunity to visit many county fairs across the state. Meeting exhibitors, various fair board members, and visitors has been the highlight of my month. While visiting these fairs, many people expressed their concern for continuing the tradition of their local fair. How can we encourage more participation from 4-H, FFA and open class exhibitors to showcase the importance of county fairs?
The county fair’s importance dates back to a time when people loved to get together and celebrate. From showcasing their harvest, crafts, pies and more; it brought the community together.
It makes me sad when I see a historical tradition on the verge of fading away, as most of my favorite memories began at my local county fair. I was the kid who tried everything. I showed dairy, horses, and brought an entire van filled of projects to the fair. Some projects were special as they got the nod to head to the Wisconsin State Fair…while others turned out to be a great learning experience.
County fairs are vital for rural communities. Here are 5 reasons why county fairs are more important than ever:
There is more than just ribbons
I’ll be the first to say that I learned way more from a white or red ribbon than a blue ribbon. Of course I tried my best to get a blue, but the projects that I received anything less than a blue, I tried so much harder the next year. Without competition, there would be no reason to showcase the best and learn from the best. Working towards being your best self and doing your best work is what helps youth continue to work hard for years to come.
Our state rewards hard work. In fact, in 2016 Wisconsin Fairs paid a total of $814,287 in premiums to youth and adult exhibitors based on their placement in their participating categories.
Many lessons happen in the show-ring. Whether it was learning how to present yourself and you project in front of a judge or reaching out to businesses prior to the fair and asking them if they would be interested in buying it at the meat animal sale, fairs bring people together for friendly competition and life lessons.
Brings the community together each and every year
“More than 3 million people attended 76 Wisconsin county/area fairs in 2016.” - Wisconsin Association of Fairs Annual Report
I’m guilty of saying “I’ve been so busy,” or “things have been crazy.” It seems like life’s busy schedules get in the way of friendships and fun. Each and every year at the same time, my county fair would happen. Our family would plan our entire schedule around the fair each year. We’d also have the chance of meeting up with friends we hadn’t seen in months. We’d come together to socialize, catch up on local gossip (guilty!), learn, and enjoy good food and entertainment.
Explore new projects and interests
“The first objective of any fair is to present a teaching/learning experience done in a way that is enjoyable for all ages.” – Wisconsin Association of Fairs Annual Report.
From cattle to ceramics, there is an activity and project for everyone. Statewide the top four categories for premium payments to exhibitors were:
Dairy Cattle: $92,382
Cultural Arts: $74,601
Besides the projects that I’d bring every year, I always would walk around the 4-H exhibit hall and look at my peer’s projects. I would find a couple projects that kids did and want to do something similar the next year. From making a broccoli salad and trying to write the ingredients as neatly as possible on a 3x5 index card, to reading books on how to make a certain type of loop for a bracelet that I was making…the county fair taught me the importance of trying new things AND patience.
One new thing that I tried once was showing a pig. My pig project was supposed to be “perfect.” We picked out a couple pigs… two barrows and a gilt. At our county fair we could bring a gilt and a barrow. Unfortunately, two weeks before the fair my gilt became sick and we decided to keep her home. Raising livestock is tricky because they change so frequently from one week to the next. The barrow that I had been working with for weeks suddenly wasn’t growing at the rate that the other one had. That meant that I had to work my tail off with the better barrow… and fast.
The week of the county fair, my barrow still wasn’t walking like he should. He was stubborn! I’ll never forget that showmanship class. My pig would. not. move. However, I kept smiling and showing him the best I could and actually ended up with a 3rd blue. I proudly hung up that blue ribbon on my pig’s pen with the biggest smile on my face.
Brings economic activity to local small businesses
If you talk to any small business owners, they’ll tell you that the county fair week is one of their biggest weeks of income. If the county fair week would be taken away, their overall growth would suffer. County fair visitors come in to the fair, but they also enjoy the hospitality of local small business. Sometimes, these businesses will even set up an area at the fair to serve their products. These businesses care about the community that they serve.
Fun memories for the rest of your life
My cousins and I camped at the fair. Although that might sound fun, that meant that we had even more opportunities to laugh AND fight. One night in particular – we won hermit crabs from a stand and decided to bring them into the RV. The next morning, they were gone. Soon we forgot about them and assumed that they escaped to outside. Two weeks later, I unpacked my suitcase and found the two hermit crabs ALIVE and CRAWLING in my suitcase. That story still brings up laughs at Christmas time along with many others that happened at the fair.
Socializing, learning and meeting new people is fun. I’ve had so many funny memories at the county fair and even though I might have aged out, I look forward to visiting the fair and many other fairs across the state. Don’t be afraid to ask questions to gain new knowledge as one of the best parts of attending the fair is stepping outside your comfort zone and trying something new.
If you’re a 4-H, FFA or open class exhibitor, I challenge you to participate in a totally new project. I promise that no matter how it turns out…you’ll look back on the memories of the process and be happy with your progress.
If you’ve always wanted to try new things, meet new people, and add skills to your resume…participate in your local county fair! Glancing at the current premium book, you will get an understanding of the endless opportunities that are only a couple miles from your doorstep. Lastly, visit your local county fair and/or visit one that you’ve never gone to before. Ask exhibitors many of questions and while you’re at it…sample great food that makes each county fair extra special.
Together we can continue to promote and participate at county fairs so that future generations can enjoy this special Wisconsin tradition.