A summer of show

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She wakes up every day to do as many chores as the toughest farm kids, sometimes more, but not as a requirement. Her peers are cruising their cars, going to the movies or maybe doing nothing at all. Not Laura Meany.

The 4-H die-hard from Rose Creek is accomplishing something unprecedented inside the barns, fenceways and showrooms of the Mower County Fairgrounds this year: nearly everything. Eleven rabbits, five pigs, five goats, two dairy calves, two pigeons, two sheep, one dairy steer, a llama and a horse command all of Meany’s attention. It’s a tiring, yet rewarding process.

The animals have drained her entire summer, parts of her school year and continue to do so. A dog is the only animal category in which she did not show. But she’s done that, too.

Meany, 17, of Rose Creek, is on a mission, one that doesn’t involve pride or bragging rights. She’s out to learn, ready to give back to those looking up to her, and soaking in as much animal knowledge as she can as she reaches the peak of her 4-H career.

Of the 346 4-H exhibitors at the Mower County fair, Meany is the only one trying to tackle every livestock project. She fostered the idea during the lull of winter, coordinated with locals to take care of their animals and even helped slog through forms in the Mower County Fair office. Where others had a few registration forms, Meany had more than one hundred. At that point, she was fully committed, officially. She stuck to her word. Even four days before the first events — horse showmanship, riding and games — Meany was still learning how to work the reins. Her entire goal — one she even admits was a little crazy — was never a secret.

“It’s a little overboard. That’s for sure,” Laura said. “But I’ve learned more than ever.”

Were there ever a 4-H endeavor to chronicle, it would be Meany’s. Others are watching it unfold.

“She has been in every livestock showing, and it’s just cool she finds the time to work with them,” said Garret Thompson, Hayfield 4-H’er with a handful of his own livestock projects.

Thompson, a junior in high school, has spent a lot of his days at the county fairs, including Mower, Olmsted and Dodge. He has never seen anybody do what Meany is doing.

“It’s just crazy,” Thompson said, who spends an hour and half just on washing and drying his cattle, then another hour and a half standing his lambs. “I don’t understand the time.”

Despite the all-summer hard work and dedication, early morning chores, farm visits and money invested on animal care, Meany maintains her composure. She almost always wears a smile. Were 4-H a billboard, she’d be the person on it.

“Her smile, it’s always the thing,” said Mower County 4-H Coordinator Melissa Koch. “You can always count on Meany for a smile. Even on the hottest, roughest day, she can always conjure up that smile.”

Though 4-H is a staple at county fairs across the country, it’s not built around ribbons, trophies and competition. It’s built around families, friends, mentors and positive life experiences. Spectators see those experiences happening all the time at the county and state fairs, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. The most interesting, funniest and adrenaline-filled moments often happen right on the family farms, where Meany feels quite comfortable.

“I’m not afraid of getting dirty,” she said.

Farmyards are just the beginning to Meany’s adventure.

A 4-H’er on a mission

Laura Meany glanced over her shoulder just in time to see the carnage. Kinzie Smith was already in a meat grinder of a predicament, sliding across the gravel driveway while ahold of a 350-pound dairy calf.

A normal reaction would be to help. However, Meany’s calf wasn’t so cooperative itself, and all Smith really had to do was let go of the rope. She hung on.

These are the rigors of 4-H.

The first task on that June 28 morning brought Meany to the Smiths’ dairy farm near Rose Creek and Adams. It’s just one of several farms Meany is using to accomplish part of her 4-H mission: learn as much as she can about every animal and exhibit in every livestock category at the Mower County Fair.

She achieved her goal. And while the preparation was not always easy, it wasn’t bothersome, either.

“I’m not going to lie; it’s kind of like an adrenaline rush,” Meany said.

Perhaps Smith, 18, feels the same way. She pulled herself — in her dairy cow pattern rain boots — back to her feet, her calf somewhat under control. Being hip-checked, tossed and manhandled by a dairy calf isn’t every girl’s idea of fun, but Meany and Smith are self-proclaimed farm girls. They’re not shy about that.

They love their plaid, belt buckles, rain boots and 4-H shirts, especially the ones with Fleet Farm logos.

Smith and Meany, along with another 4-H prospect, sized up calves for more than a half hour that morning. They looked for straight backs, full dairy figures, big bones … the right features. They’re learning, both active in 4-H and even preparing for careers. Ask Meany, and she’ll mention every time that she’s not in it for the medals, and it’s not about pride.

The Smiths’ farm provides a perfect opportunity for Meany, just like a few other farms do. It’s near her home, Smith is knowledgeable and helpful, and Meany can learn about the dairy industry.

The arrangement is reciprocal, as Smith can show rabbits and llamas, thanks to Meany. Among the Mower County Fair and its competitions, there is a whole underworld to Mower County’s 4-H — a good one. Every one has a story.

For Meany, it all started with the appeal of a fluffy, cute, little bunny.

“I’ve wanted a rabbit my whole life; what little girl doesn’t want a pretty, soft, little rabbit?” Meany said.

In fifth-grade, Meany set her sights on a 4-H exhibit, brought a rabbit to the fair and received a third-place ribbon. That earned her a trip to the Minnesota State Fair, where she earned another third-place prize.

“I think I had tears down my face, and I’m not a crier,” Meany said.

Her 4-H career started like many others, as rabbit projects allow younger children to get their feet wet within 4-H’s educational and family-oriented programs. Diane Stundahl, a local 4-H leader and rabbit expert, was a major influence.

“I don’t think my daughter would have shown rabbits again had Diane not been the mentor,” said Meany’s mom, Lyn Meany.

Stundahl continues to be a mentor, as she taught Meany how to tattoo rabbit ears July 11. Meany grabbed the tattoo gun with nervous fingers and a questioning grin on her face. Her smile never fades easily. She tattooed the first ear like she’d done it before. Someday, she can pass that knowledge to another, like she already does in so many other ways. Those in 4-H are rarely alone or lacking the resources to achieve their goals.

While some parents won’t let their kids have pets — and owning pets simply isn’t an option for others — families such as the Meanys introduce those people to the experience. They’re just one of several Mower County families that leases extra animals to those who don’t have the means to care for them. Because of people like the Meanys, children can feel like they belong.

“Sometimes that’s all it takes,” Stundahl said, who continues to encourage children through 4-H. “A kid just needs to belong somewhere.”

Meany, who was introduced to the leasing concept in sixth-grade, now sees leasing as a way to return the favor.

“Rabbits are definitely the way for me to pay it forward,” Meany said, while a half-dozen rabbits scurried around a table in the Meanys’ garage.

What introduced Meany to 4-H has turned into what some call an obsession, as her family houses, feeds and cares for 54 rabbits.

“It’s definitely an arguing thing on who has to feed them each day,” Meany said.

Proximity is a convenience for the Meanys and all their 4-H projects.

While they lease rabbits, they also lease their own projects from other area farmers. And there is no shortage of dairy and hog farms near Rose Creek. Goats? There’s a dairy farm for those, too. Of course, it’s another bullet point on Meany’s agenda.

At Al Mandt’s dairy goat farm, Meany leases two dairy goats, visits them several times per week and walks them in preparation each year for the county fair. Mandt has helped many 4-H students try their hands with goats, as he is a staple in the 4-H leasing program. Because of Mandt, Meany learned the whole concept of leasing animals.

But Mandt has done something more important for Meany and plenty of others in Mower County 4-H; he has taught them to show animals, understand a bit of science and build confidence.

“Al has been huge in helping Laura develop confidence,” said Meany’s mother, Lyn.

Lyn has followed her daughters’ 4-H projects, funded much of them, teased her daughters and been there every step of the way. She realizes how much of a so-called monster her daughters have created with all of their projects.

“Unfortunately, Laura likes everything,” Lyn joked, yet through it all still sees the benefits. “But it’s not a bad thing because she has created a lot of relationships with friends she otherwise would not have. … 4-H can create almost anything you want out of it. You can find your niche with anything you want to do.”

Mower County 4-H Coordinator Melissa Koch is another major proponent of the local leasing program, as she said it proves “you don’t have to live on a farm or don’t have to personally own the animals.”

People like Meany, however, are destined to do more than lease a few animals.

On her family’s plot, just a few miles from home, Meany keeps another hodgepodge of an animal collection.

This, for the most part, is her domain. Some can notice that by the way Meany takes charge with the animals: the goats, sheep, and especially the llamas.

“I’m not afraid to get in an animal’s face,” Meany said.

Of course, the llamas have their moments, too. Meany takes a hay-wad of spit to the face about once a week, she suspects.

“There’s the occasional freak-out,” she said.

Still, with a 4-H shirt and a smile, Meany sets out every day with a positive attitude. Her workload of chores, preparation for the county and state fair, 4-H camp, lifeguard duties and occasional refereeing of soccer games inevitably grows tiresome. But she won’t complain about her obligations. She can only point and laugh at herself.

“I’m slowly realizing how crazy I am,” she said. “A lot of people call me crazy.”

That trait often works in Meany’s favor, though. There are men who won’t do some of the things she does. Like Meany said, she’s not afraid to get in an animal’s face. And she has since learned to take other measures when all hell breaks loose, like her first experience with a runaway-train of a steer, three times her size.

“I jumped on its back,” she said.

Nearly every day of the summer for Meany is a tour of the county’s farms.

At 9 a.m. on July 19, she was already on her second stop for the day, eager to chase pigs.

Inside her rented barn on Bryan May’s farm, Meany corralled two pigs to practice showing. Pigs are one of the most popular show animals at the fair. Awhile back, the Meanys bought their own pigs, but perhaps went a little overboard.

“My dad was under the assumption that we were bringing home two pigs, and we bring home nine,” Meany joked.

As Meany herded two pigs around the yard, it was evident how she has honed her craft with animals. Her mom calls her a natural.

“She has just got the right touch,” Lyn said.

Regardless if she simply has the touch, though, Meany practices. She learns from the same farmers with whom she may someday be working.

“Until you go out to a farm and shadow a farmer, you really don’t understand what all goes into it,” Meany said.

Meany hopped on an 8-year-old mare on July 31 and rode with purpose.

The 4-H horse show was in just four days, and Meany could admit she was far from an expert equestrian.

The field of local 4-H horse riders and exhibitors ranges from preteens to 19-year-olds, many of whom grow up with horses, train them and ride on a regular basis. As the horse competitions started this year, Meany had about two months’ of experience under her belt — on someone else’s horse.

“It’s hard for a person who is coming into it new to try to learn so much in a short amount of time,” Meany said.

Like so many other families around the county, the Amicks lent a hand to Meany. They allowed her to practice on their horse, at their facility and even provided some direction.

“They understand my goal,” Meany said.

Meany was physically and mentally drained as horse competitions got underway. Her happy-go-lucky smile was wiped from her face, and she was admittedly frustrated. Somehow she grabbed fourth place in showmanship.

The situation panned out much like it did with her pigeons. To show in the poultry division, she needed something. She found pigeons and admits she didn’t know much about them. Still, she placed in that division, as well. Furthermore, she achieved her overall goal. She accomplished everything at the Mower County Fair she sought to do. Mission complete — almost.

While 4-H is a heck of a hobby for many, it’s a big stepping stone, a resume builder — a path to a career.

Through all of it, people like Meany become leaders. This year, Meany will exemplify that with 20-some others from around Minnesota as a state 4-H ambassador. She’ll help judge, show people where to go, promote 4-H, and network with professionals. She’ll feel right in her place. She lives for the whole scene: the best animals in the state, the friends, and the Fleet Farm and 4-H shirts everywhere.

“State Fair is like a second home for me,” Meany said.

Meany will serve as a face of 4-H and advocate for its future.

“They represent our key leaders and our youth who have really made a commitment to giving back to the program,” said Jan Derdowski, adviser of the State Ambassador program.

Meany has reached the prime of her 4-H career. Though she’ll have two years of eligibility remaining, she’s at the peak of the cause: to teach youngsters, continue passing the torch and foster interest in agricultural and other careers.

“It’s a transition for these people,” Derdowski said about the point Meany has reached. “They want to support a program that has really enriched and helped build who they are.”

Derdowski is right about that. Even months before that statement, Meany first thanked all the people who have helped her along the way and spoke about helping those students who have yet to come. She realizes what the program has done for her.

“If 4-H wasn’t in my life, I wouldn’t be the person I am today,” Meany said.

Many 4-H members stick around the program for life. Derdowski mentioned past 4-H members are judges, club leaders or work in other areas to promote 4-H.

Meany, she wants to be a large animal vet.

“I’ve considered other things, but that is what I will come back to every time,” she said.

Someday, perhaps she’ll vaccinate and treat livestock illnesses for another local farmer, so his kids can try 4-H, go to the county fairs and have fun along the way. The cycle will continue.


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