For every kid who worked months on his or her fair project last year, the realization that there might not be a show in 2020 hit hard.
Jerry Costello knows how important it is for farm kids to show off their hard work and to be able to compete. It's also a vital way to cultivate that next generation of agricultural leaders. This director of the Illinois Department of Agriculture wasn't about to let the fair go without a fight.
Iowa's Debbie Nistler felt the same way. A state 4-H program leader, she wanted youths in her state to get a chance to show their livestock despite the challenges of planning around a pandemic.
"The easier solution would have been to just close everything and not have anything, which would have been completely understandable," Nistler says. "But, these youth spent all year learning how to take care of their animals, and this was their chance to show us what they learned."
Costello and Nistler found others equally committed to supporting farm kids and getting them to the fair. While 2020 ended up being a different sort of show year, it did move forward.
In Illinois, for example, Costello worked with Governor JB Pritzker to host a junior livestock expo in Springfield, where youth ages 8 to 21 were given an opportunity to show the animals they had worked so hard to prepare. They also planned a junior horse show in Du Quoin.
Illinois implemented what became known as the "show-and-go" technique for livestock and horse exhibitions. Exhibitors and their animals were given a short time to arrive and prepare for the show. They promptly left the premises once their show was concluded. To help encourage participation, the Illinois livestock and horse shows were condensed into two weekends each. The first weekend was for beef, dairy goats, pygmy goats, sheep, rabbits and poultry. The second week was for swine, dairy cattle and market goats. As for the horse show in Du Quoin, the first week consisted of English showing, followed by western showing the next week.
The Department of Agriculture worked closely with local and state health departments in each location to ensure the health and safety of the exhibitors.
"We focused on things like mask-wearing, social distancing and making sure common areas were disinfected," Costello says. "We adapted with the help of the health department to make sure this experience was safe, while still allowing youth in our state to exhibit their animals."
Most states, including Illinois, typically hold a premium sale for the highest-placing animals in each species. Donors bid on the animals to help support the youths who raised them. This is a major source of money for next year's show animals. Unfortunately, many states couldn't risk the large crowds these auctions normally attract. Costello says instead of the traditional sale, they used a shared jackpot scenario, where entry fees were dispersed among winners. Some groups sponsored additional events to help add to that prize money.
As for static exhibits, such as art and quilting, they weren't left out. They were all held virtually for the state of Illinois. "We worked with Illinois 4-H and Extension to make this the best possible experience for these kids. Many of these projects are things they worked on all year," Costello says.
He wasn't the only person who fought for the kids. Lt. Governor Juliana Stratton was present each weekend of the junior livestock shows, believing it was important to show her commitment.
"Agriculture is the No. 1 industry for the state of Illinois, bringing in about $19 billion annually," Costello notes. "It was important to her [Stratton] to be there. She is very involved with agriculture education."
SOCIAL DISTANCING IN IOWA
The Iowa State Fair was canceled in 2020, too, but leaders there also took a unique approach to continue livestock exhibitions for 4-H and FFA members. For the first three weekends in August, those competitions spread out across the entire fairground.
Each exhibitor could bring two people. Nistler, state 4-H program leader, says the reduced number of people and the larger area let everyone social distance and stay safe, while still being able to show their livestock.
"There were very few people on the premises outside of the immediate families. This helped us limit the number of people we had in the stands, too," she continues. Health practices went beyond the general crowd and spectators. Both 4-H and FFA youths were required to follow protective procedures as they showed animals.
"We set up the ring to allow them to social distance. We strongly encouraged exhibitors to wear masks while they were in the show ring," Nistler says. "Our judges and staff had on masks and/or face shields."
The swine show proved to be the most challenging because of the way pigs are handled.
"Those exhibitors had to wear masks. There was no way around that," Nistler says. "We also limited the number of pigs in the ring at a time."
Their premium sale for the year was canceled to protect exhibitors and their families, and food judging was also canceled.
"Food judging has a lot of risk involved, and there is no way to evaluate those types of entries well without a face-to-face interaction," Nistler explains. "We decided to forgo."
Other exhibits moved online. Photos, for example, were uploaded for judges to review. Winners received a ribbon for placing. And, the general public didn't miss out on some of the traditional staples of the Iowa State Fair. An on-site event that stretched over three weekends in September and October, called "Taste of the Fair," invited around 20 food vendors to come out and serve fair foods. The Iowa State Fair also started a social media challenge for families and fairgoers to celebrate from home. The campaign, "#FairAtHome," encouraged individuals to send in photos of how they chose to commemorate their virtual experience for the 2020 Iowa State Fair.
OHIO MAKES HARD DECISION
Many states across the country opted to skip fairs in 2020 to reduce risk to the public and to participants. In Ohio, all fair activities, including the livestock show, were canceled. This decision was not made lightly, considering even the governor has strong ties to 4-H.
"Governor Mike DeWine and the first lady are 4-H grandparents, so 4-H and FFA youth are high in their priorities," says Kirk Bloir, Ohio State 4-H leader.
While the state fair didn't go on, many local and county fairs did push ahead in Ohio. Several counties received funding to help meet safety guidelines implemented to ensure a safe livestock show. Each county that held a livestock show received $50,000 to purchase COVID-19 supplies. This included hand-sanitizing stations, face masks and signage.
Where possible, the fair provided one-way traffic in buildings or other areas to help people maintain social distancing. Livestock competitors were socially distanced at least 6 feet apart, while judges wore masks during close examination of animals. Class sizes were reduced to help with social distancing between exhibitors.
"They split classes into multiple heats to help reduce the number of animals in the show ring at the same time," Bloir says. "Many counties did allow the general population to enter the fairgrounds to watch the livestock shows, but that eventually had to be limited to only livestock exhibitors and their immediate families."
Bloir adds that 4-H teaches its members to be civic-minded and to give back to the community that supports them. In 2020, many youths took that literally and, in a unique gesture to show their appreciation for being able to compete in a junior livestock show, donated their show animals.
"Several of our members decided to harvest their animals and donate to local food pantries," Bloir says. "Several food pantries were really struggling to find funding to feed their communities."
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
At press time, as the world moves into 2021, there is hope a vaccine will allow everyone to return to those activities they love -- including state fairs and livestock competitions.
"One of my favorite things to do is interact with 4-H and FFA," Costello says. "It's important to have our youth involved in agriculture, especially with the change that our industry sees."
"I think that we, as a nation and an industry, are very optimistic we're going to be in a place soon where we have figured out how to successfully manage the risks that coronavirus poses," Bloir adds. "I think we're going to continue to find a way to provide opportunities statewide."
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