Some of the best days of my youth were spent at the Dawes County Fair in Western Nebraska. Four days each August, the culmination of weeks spent rinsing heifers, walking lambs and taking endless photographs to mount on poster board, would finally come, as we took these projects and others to Chadron. I even entered my house cat, Joe, so he wouldn’t be left behind while we were 30 miles from the ranch.
County fairs differ from county to county and state to state. But the common thread they all share are the lessons learned including hard work, perseverance, sportsmanship, public speaking, animal husbandry and volunteerism. Perhaps the most valuable takeaway is that county fairs are about creating lasting friendships.
I recently caught up with one of the friends that I competed with and against at the Dawes County Fair, Samantha Dyer. Although I moved away from Dawes County, Sam and I remained close, primarily due to our ties formed through the fair and junior Hereford programs and later through collegiate livestock judging. The advent of social media has helped us follow each other’s adult journeys through marriage and now parenthood.
Sam is an alumna of Dawes County 4-H and had the good fortune to return to her roots after time away. We agree that some of the best times and best memories that we had at that fair are the friendships we formed. Another favorite memory for her, one I vaguely remember as we moved away after my freshman year of high school, is the water fights after the beef show. They started small but grew over time.
“Everybody looked forward to the water fights on the wash rack after the beef show. And they got so big, they called the fire department out with their water trucks and big hoses. It was a lot of fun,” she recalls.
Now, as an adult, Sam gets to experience the fair in a different light – as a parent and volunteer. She and her husband Don Edelman are first-year 4-H parents, a role she has been anticipating with excitement. Their son, Teague, will take two steers and two pigs to the same fair his mom and grandpa exhibited at. Their daughter, Skyler, will be able to participate in the Clover Kids program for pre-4-Hers.
“I’ve waited a long time for this. Teague has a lot of interest in technology and anything with a motor, but he’s really taken an interest in his beef project this year, and he’s really good at showmanship and practices a lot at home. I’ve really enjoyed watching my kids with their animals this year,” Sam said.
She said she is looking forward to spending the week at the fair with many of the same people she grew up with, except this time, they are parents, helping the next generation grow, learn and succeed.
One of the best attributes to the Dawes County Fair, according to Sam, is its ability and desire to bring in high-quality judges who are relevant to the industry and take time to teach their youth. Since most kids in the county bring in home-raised animals, she said she appreciates that their livestock committee and fair board does find judges who are industry savvy and take time with the kids who have devoted much of the spring and summer to their projects.
As a first-time county fair mom, I too can relate to a lot of what Sam shares. Our daughter, Lily, showed two barrows in the open show at our local county fair this July. It was both nerve-racking and exciting to see her show her barrows, high-five the judge and make new memories.
Here are five opportunities that Sam and I believe the county fair provides.
Teach responsibility. Sam is in her 15th year as a Financial Advisor for Farm Credit, and she and her husband own two grocery stores, which he manages, so their kids have had to step up with their livestock projects this summer. Caring for livestock every day in the barn and getting them ready for the county fair is a great way to teach responsibility. If you don’t feed and water your animals, who will?
“Our kids have done a lot of the work on their own this summer from feeding to rinsing steers,” Sam said.
Teach respect. I learned from my dad at an early age that the judge is the paid professional for the day, and I needed to respect his or her decision. Sometimes that is a tough pill to swallow, but it is also a lesson I’m trying to teach my recently-turned-4-year-old daughter. All summer long, we’ve been working on shaking the judge’s hand as her pig is talked, and finally at the fair, she remembered with both barrows! It didn’t matter if she was first place or seventh, she knew she needed to shake his hand, and show respect to him for his time and opinion – although the first-place opinion did warrant a high five, not just a handshake.
Instill appreciation for agriculture. Like most areas in the countryside, there are not a lot of opportunities for young people to return to production agriculture in Dawes County, according to Sam. However, she estimates that about 50% of those who compete at the fair eventually do make their way into some type of agricultural field, either education, sales or business. She used her niece as an example; she enjoys the rural lifestyle and wants to help on the family ranch as she can, so she is going to study nursing, a career that is always needed in the rural areas. Not only does her niece have an appreciation for agriculture, but Sam said the work ethic she’s developed and long hours she puts in on her livestock will help her be a successful nurse.
Teach to give back. Just like Sam and her brother are volunteers and leaders at the same fair they showed in the late 80s and 90s, many of their friends that they were involved with are right beside them, because they all know the lessons and the camaraderie formed at the fair are so valuable.
“Everybody looks forward to fair week to see the friends we made 30 years ago, some are the same and some are new, except now we are the parents making the decisions, on fair board, as leaders and superintendents,” Sam said.
As someone relatively new to our community, I too am looking forward to getting involved with and contributing to the county fair so Lily will have a great experience and learn the value of giving back to others.
Create a network. The agricultural world, especially in the livestock business, is a small space. Whether you are in Nebraska or Illinois, friendships will be created at the county fair. Besides Sam, I am still friends with several of the “young” people I was in 4-H with and am thankful for social media and our annual quick visit at the National Western Stock Show, usually just by chance.
One of the best memories of our daughter at her first fair this year was watching her cheer on her friends as they showed their pigs. Most kids don’t get shout-outs from the outside of the ring, but there was Lily, “Good job, Avery! Go Brice,” as she cheered on friends that she’ll be showing against and with for years to come.
County fairs are a part of the history of livestock shows. For some kids, the county fair may be the only show they participate in all summer, and for others, the county fair might be a stepping stone between jackpots and state fair. The one thing that is important to remember is that they are a memory-making experience that teaches young people many positive lessons and builds friendships that will last a lifetime.
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