The little guy at the takeout window was hesitant. “Um, can
I help you?” he asked after a couple of minutes deciding whether to let the
older boy, at the next takeout window, take my order.
“Sure, that would be great. I’d like a cheeseburger. Do you
have iced tea?” I asked.
He checked, his finger scrolling down the list of available
items. He looked up and nodded.
“Um, what size? Of iced tea?” he asked.
“Large, please,” I said.
He placed my order via calling it across the kitchen to
where a group of mothers was in charge of actually cooking and assembling the
Next was adding up the order. He had a calculator, but an
older girl reminded him to try to add it in his head first.
So he did and came out with the right price. I handed him my
money, and he then did the subtraction to figure out my change, which I told him
Addition, subtraction and learning customer service — and
some business skills — might be far away from what most people think goes on at
a 4-H fair, but it’s exactly part of what was happening at the Lee County 4-H
Fair when I stopped by on Saturday.
For various reasons, 4-H fairs are getting smaller and
falling by the wayside. It’s not the fault of 4-H. It’s a sad fact of state
budgets, lack of volunteers, parents and kids having too much on their plates to
add one more club or activity and people having other things to do.
That’s too bad because 4-H and 4-H fairs provide as much
benefit to the fairgoer as they do to those who participate in them.
For kids who participate in 4-H — when I was growing up, 4-H
was a “country kid” activity and wasn’t really marketed to kids who lived in
town, as it is nowadays, so I did not — there are lessons in everything, from
classroom subjects such as addition and subtraction, to life lessons like
learning to talk to all kinds of people, to how to be a gracious winner and how
to handle second place with class.
Projects that range from reading and reading comprehension
and communication skills to creative arts to horticulture to crops and livestock
and woodworking provide something for every child at every skill level to master
and display with pride.
4-H and 4-H fairs also provide what water parks and Disney
and other “family” attractions spend bazillions of dollars a year in advertising
trying to sell — quality family time.
Whether it’s hanging out in the livestock barns or the
parents anxiously watching from the other side of the fence that surrounds the
show ring or gathered in lawn chairs as judges carefully peruse the woodworking
projects, families were out in force at the Lee County 4-H Fair. That was just
during the day.
4-H fairs also are one of the last attractions that are both
truly family-friendly and safe. No matter the size of the 4-H fair, there’s
always a parent or club leader or 4-H board member or even older 4-H members who
keeps a careful eye on everybody and who kids can go to in an emergency.
The activities at 4-H fairs, from the daytime activities to
the mud bogs, truck and tractor pulls and demo derbies, also remain
For the fairgoer, there’s something soul-soothing about
going to a county 4-H fair, especially if it’s your own county’s 4-H fair. You
see people you know. You stroll around the fairgrounds that are themselves a
piece of local life and history.
You catch up, stand around and talk, see the familiar last
names. Even as the fairs struggle, there’s a comfort in knowing that there are
people working to make sure they continue, however altered in size, that the
fair will go on, at least for a while.
It’s comforting and relaxing to just walk around at your
leisure and look at the different types of livestock and animals, to peek into
pens and look over exhibits. It’s tough to find anyone who’s angry or impatient
or upset at a county 4-H fair.
It’s nearly impossible to find a child at a 4-H fair giving
a parent the sort of attitude and disrespect that you can often witness at other
“family” venues, from malls to water parks to amusement parks.
I think there’s an irony in the fact that as people are
flocking to farmers markets and emphasizing “local” foods and trying to get back
to our agricultural roots and a simpler, more rural way of life, one of the very
activities that embodies those agricultural, agrarian roots — the county 4-H
fair — is in danger of becoming extinct.
If you want to see agrarian roots, if you want to see
farming and home-based skills like they were and always have been, head to a
county 4-H fair.
No matter where the county 4-H fair is, whether it’s in the
suburban counties or more agricultural counties such as Lee County, you’ll see
farming and agriculture and rural life on display in a variety of ways.
You’ll see young people displaying their projects that
highlight a variety of skills, from cooking, baking, cake decorating, sewing,
painting and drawing to growing flowers, vegetables, small grains, corn and
soybeans to small livestock such as rabbits and chickens to large livestock such
as cattle, hogs, horses and sheep.
You leave the fair with a certain sense of satisfaction at
knowing that, just by attending, you’ve contributed to helping kids of all
skills learn and do, whether it’s by contributing through the gate fee or
whether it’s helping a 4-H member improve some math skills and gain some
confidence at the takeout window.
You also leave a 4-H fair with a sense of confidence that
there is and always will be kids and parents who are willing to pledge their
heads to clearer thinking, their hearts to greater loyalty, their hands to
larger service and their health to better living for their communities, their
countries and the world.