Battle Creek

4-H Fair in Calhoun County cancelled, some events move online

Bittersweet is the word Ryder Strunk used to describe what he was feeling about the cancellation of this year’s Calhoun County Fair.

The 9-year-old who will be attending Lakeview Middle School this Fall is among more than 500 4-H members who were looking forward to the Fair, a major event that they spend all year preparing for.

Last week, the Calhoun County Agricultural and Industrial Society's board of directors, announced the cancellation of the Fair, which began as an annual event in 1848 making it Michigan's oldest continuously running fair.

In a press release, board members said, "This decision was not made lightly. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and Governor (Gretchen) Whitmer's Safe Start Plan, holding a traditional in-person fair August 16-22, 2020, will not be feasible. The CCAIS Board holds the health and safety of all fairgoers paramount, including exhibitors, guests, vendors, volunteers, and employees."

Ryder’s mother, Heidi Strunk, who leads the Lucky Stars 4-H Club, says her son told her that he was glad that a decision had been made given all of the uncertainty posed by the coronavirus pandemic. She says her level of disappointment about the cancellation is greater than that of her son, and daughter, Hadlee, age 6, who both participate in non-livestock 4-H programs and also show miniature horses as part of the livestock program.

“I’ve been going to that fair for over 30 years as a 4-H member, leader and parent. It’s kind of like, ‘what do we do with ourselves now?'” Strunk says.

That question was answered when leadership of the Calhoun County 4-H came up with a plan to hold a virtual 4-H Fair event using a platform that has become all too familiar to individuals and organizations who are trying to put on events and still comply with state-mandated orders, says Kathy Fischer, Calhoun County 4-H coordinator. In April, the local 4-H program stopped having face-to-face meetings and moved instead to a virtual platform.

“We’re working with Branch and Berrien counties and we’re putting on a virtual showcase,” Fischer says. “Obviously we can’t replicate the in-person experience of the Fair, but what we can do is offer kids the opportunity to show off their projects and still get the judges feedback and recognition for what they’ve done.

She says the three counties are joining together because their fairs happen around the same time.

“This gives our kids an opportunity to see projects from other areas,” Fischer says.

Participants in both the livestock and non-livestock competitions are being asked to upload photos and videos of their projects by Aug. 12 to a dedicated Fair website. The judging will begin two days later with all comments and placements during the week of the Fair, Fischer says.

“Obviously we can’t replicate the actual atmosphere of the fair, but what we can do is offer our kids the opportunity to show off their projects and still get the judges feedback and recognition for what they’ve done,” Fischer says.

“It will be different because it’s not the fair, so there will be no Grand Champion, but kids all get A, B, or C ribbons and will get a placing, with blue, red or white ribbons. Our judges will give feedback and comments. When they’re in the showring they don’t often get that opportunity when you have a class of 10 or 15 animals out there.”

Among the things that Fischer says she will miss about that in-person interaction is being able to be with the kids to see them exhibit their projects and accomplishments as a result of the skills they gain and work hard to perfect leading up to the Fair.

“We’ll be able to see pictures and video, but it’s not the same as being at the Fair to see the smile on the face of the Grand Champion or a kid who did the best they can do and made it through. Those are the things I’m going to miss,” she says. “It is about showing their animals and their projects, but the fair is also about the atmosphere and family and friends who spend the whole week at the Fair.”

Strunk says it is an event that has long been a tradition in her household. In addition to showcasing their projects, Strunk and her children volunteer at a lemonade stand during Fair Week leading her to say that what is happening this year is a prime example of what you do when life gives you lemon.

“My kids are excited about this virtual event. My daughter is super-excited and says it’s an adventure and something different,” Strunk says.

Going virtual to stay connected

This method of keeping the program going is also not new.

Since April 2, face-to-face meetings have been replaced with Zoom meetings, the platform being used by Michigan State University, the umbrella organization for 4-H, which operates through the university’s Cooperative Extension.

Fischer says cooperative extension services began as a way to take the research happening at the university level and bring it to people in communities.

The decision to go virtual was disappointing in and of itself, but the real disappointment set in when Fischer was told that her kids wouldn’t be able to show at the Fair as 4-H members and were given the option to enroll as youth members which would give them the opportunity to participate in the Youth Fair, part of the overall Fair.

Fischer says there were those who thought that the MSU official who made that decision was “crazy.” But, as the number of COVID19 cases continued to increase, those who disagreed began to see the wisdom of that decision.

“MSU is making their decisions based on science that they know and understand and none of the rest of us understood in quite the same way,” Fischer says.

Among the biggest challenges of this new virtual reality is that not everyone was prepared to go virtual or had that capability when schools were ordered to shut down back in March. Fischer says she thinks that kids are burned out as a result of the reliance on virtual forms of communication to stay connected.

“They’re tired of that and don’t have the motivation to want to do that,” she says. “Some of the things we’re teaching are hard to do virtually.”

This includes adults who would normally work with kids to train or work with kids to show them how to position their animals for show. These leaders also would typically be going out to peoples’ homes to evaluate the animals and offer suggestions about things like what may need to be added to their diets.

“These are the things that have not been able to happen,” Fisher says.

During a normal Fair Week, non-livestock participants would present their projects to the judges one week before the start of the Fair and would have conversations with judges and be given whatever ribbon they qualified for the day before the fair begins. Their projects are then on display throughout Fair Week. 
“The livestock all come in at the beginning of the week and their competitions are held throughout the week,” Fischer says. “On Thursday and Friday we have auctions where the market animals are sold and shipped directly to processors.”

4-H, she says, is a year-round program based on the animals being raised or the projects being worked on. 

“It depends on the animal species,” Fischer says. “A lot of our kids are working on projects year round. Chickens are time-limited, but if you’re working on breed chickens or steers that’s year round. With a lot of the non-livestock projects, kids are working on those year round.”

As the leader of a non-livestock club, Strunk says it was difficult to have virtual meetings because her club supplies the craft materials for projects kids are working on. She says her club met as a Calhoun County Youth Club, not as a 4-H club, in-person on July 2 with the appropriate social distancing and following health guidelines. Six of her members were in attendance.

“It was so great to see them doing crafts and they were all talking and interacting,” Strunk says. “We will continue to get together and have pizza and ice cream for our pre-fair meetings. These kids have to have some normalcy.”

More than animals

Even though 4-H has a lot of history based in agriculture and livestock animals by virtue of it being started by land grant universities like MSU, Fischer says it’s ultimately a life skills program that has expanded to include non-livestock focuses including sewing, cooking, robotics, creative writing and creative and expressive arts troupes such as one in Albion.

The Albion group has about 50 4-H youth who meet year round and get together in the summer for six weeks with the sole purpose of planning and putting on a live performance. Fischer says the kids choose the topic and handle everything from costumes and stage lighting to acting and directing, which gives them the opportunity to learn all aspects of a live production.

“A couple of years ago they chose social justice as their topic which featured a young African American youth really telling his story about how they feel and see things going on around them from a young person’s perspective,” Fischer says. “Last year they did a performance about the historical aspects of Albion.

“They travel around and do performances locally and last year they performed at MSU’s Wharton Center. They get to do some pretty cool things.”

Like much of the rest of the  4-H activities, this also has been put on hold.

But, it’s the addition of programs like this and others that deal with areas like mental health issues and nutrition that have kept numbers steady for the county’s 4-H program.

“We continue to grow and let people know what’s out there. I try to get kids at a young age,” Fischer says. “Our youngest kids are between ages 5 and 7. They don’t do competitive activities, but they still learn about 4-H.

“Even though we’re not doing face-to-face programs and there’s not going to be a fair, we are still out there getting connected with kids.”
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Read more articles by Jane Parikh.

Jane Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.