4-H skills, traditions remain a Minnesota State Fair mainstay

Published 8:19 am Tuesday, August 30, 2016

By Liz Sawyer

Minneapolis Star Tribune

Long before sunrise Wednesday, a parade of trailers snaked through the Minnesota State Fairgrounds to deliver another year’s worth of blue-ribbon-hopeful livestock to their barns.

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With less than 24 hours until gates open to the public, time was ebbing. Drowsy teens pushed full steam ahead to prepare the animals they’ve raised since birth for their biggest arena yet.

Dawn was barely breaking as Emma Severns, 18, of Good Thunder in southern Minnesota, closed the gate on her prized hog, Maya. She spent the morning laying down bedding and making sure the crossbred gilt was comfortable ahead of Friday’s judging.

“It’s exciting to be competing on this level,” said Severns, who lives on a hobby farm and began showing poultry in second grade through her local 4-H Club. “You can really represent yourself through your animal.”

Fair stalwart 4-H has a long history of promoting the state’s agricultural practices while educating city slickers on where their food comes from. Around 5,600 4-H kids from sixth grade through college freshmen will travel from the farthest corners of the state to the fair, having earned the spot from their performance at smaller county competitions, to exhibit livestock and showcase fine arts projects.

Most 4-H teens enroll as tots and become immersed in agricultural science projects that build social leadership skills and a sense of responsibility, supporters say. Participants are often a product of multigenerational farmfamilies who develop a love of the land while caring for creatures in their own backyards.

Fairgoers turn to 4-H youngsters to explain how dairy and beef products are produced, why animals bellow and what types produce what foodstuffs — along with any other animal trivia thrown their way. Rarely do the young experts find themselves stumped.

“There’s no question that 4-H is an integral part of almost every county fair in the state,” said Brad Rugg, superintendent of State Fair 4-H programs. “If there wasn’t 4-H there, they’d quickly start to see a deterioration of their attendance and activities.”

While there are certainly many attractions for fairgoers to choose from, 4-H exhibits remain one of the most popular educational attractions.

A lifestyle choice

The Robinson family farm, 160 acres nestled near West Concord, Minn., in Dodge County, has produced livestock shown by five generations of 4-Hers.

Sherrie Robinson, 75, raised eight children on the land, which was passed down from her husband’s great-grandfather. Fiercely competitive, Robinson began showing Guernsey cows as a girl and later taught her sons to train cattle. Her daughters submitted indoor crafts and grew potatoes.

The activities became family staples, eventually drawing in 13 grandchildren and a great-grandchild. All of them competed in various categories at this spring’s county fair, which Robinson has attended every year since 1970.

When five of her grandchildren vie for ribbons this weekend, she’ll be watching in the Coliseum — as she always does — offering support and dirty looks for judges with whom she disagrees. “For kids, this is their fun. It’s their moment,” she said. “I just love to watch their growth.”

‘Not just a hobby’

Emily Brual, Robinson’s 18-year-old granddaughter, groomed her black heifer, Alice, Wednesday morning after it arrived in a trailer full of 10 cattle. She soaped her hide, then blow-dried it.

“It’s a lifestyle, not just a hobby,” Brual said of 4-H. “We work with animals seven days a week.”

Part of that lifestyle means giving up the typical social life of a teenager, missing out on activities with friends to tend to your livestock.

Even during the fair, which many 4-H families consider a vacation, kids rarely make the time to test the Mighty Midway rides or scarf down a Pronto Pup. A rigorous show schedule requires many students to rise around 5 a.m. to walk, wash and feed their animals before fairgoers arrive.

Last year, during the height of the avian bird flu, live poultry was banned, scrambling the plans of nearly 250 4-H teens who had prepared for months.

That made State Fair organizers think outside the box, allowing young contenders to demonstrate showmanship based on photos and stuffed animals and encouraging others to switch to new species entirely.

This year, birds are back, but so is a new category, “Science of Animals,” a research project dedicated to deeper learning on a particular species where no live animal is needed.

Severns, who trained a hog this year, switched from poultry to a goat last year so she could compete with a live animal.

“It was a little heartbreaking,” she said. “[But] it opened up a lot of doors for me and got me out of my comfort zone.”

Parents of 4-H kids often praise the dedication it takes to make it to the State Fair, where only 35 percent of entries will receive the coveted blue ribbon. Even fewer will nab the greater honor of a purple ribbon.

“At the end of the day, win or lose, it’s all about learning how to grow up, be an adult and make lifelong friends,” said Brual’s father, Michael.