Monday, September 12, 2011

Reflections on the Fair

As I understand the origins of 4-H and Future Farmers of America, these organizations were created in part to educate farmers and ranchers through their children.  By teaching the latest production techniques to kids through the cooperative extension system, farmers and ranchers would adapt their production systems to apply modern scientific advances.

With the Gold Country Fair just completed, I'm reflecting on the modern role of 4-H and FFA.  Our oldest daughter, Lara, showed a market lamb, a breeding ewe and her dog (Popcorn).  Our youngest, Emma, showed her rabbit and her (our) dog, Taff.  My wife, Sami, was the project leader for the Gold Country 4-H sheep group.  I helped and supported where I could.

Over the years, 4-H and FFA have evolved from a system of extending knowledge to farmers and ranchers through their kids to a program of introducing youth to agriculture and other activities through hands-on learning.  Our experience at the recently concluded fair highlighted this new purpose for me.

Many of the kids that show market animals at the fair do so in part to learn and in part to make money.  A champion lamb, for example, might provide a child with a net income of more than $2,000.  Youth exhibitors and their families often use these projects as a way to learn responsibility and to earn money for college.  While I don't want to diminish these purposes, I think that 4-H and FFA have a higher calling - one which changes the methods we use to teach youth exhibitors at county fairs.  I think the greater calling for these programs is to ignite a spark that can lead to a career in production agriculture.  Some of the exhibitors at the Gold Country Fair will be the farmers and ranchers that feed us in the future.
Lara Macon and Rhian Brinskele showing meat goats during this year's Gold Country
Fair Master Showmanship competition.

Part of this year's Gold Country 4-H sheep group!

Jake Richardson - obviously very happy about exhibiting the reserve grand champion lamb - you should see the belt buckle he won!

Emma Macon and her rabbit, Jasper.

One of the kids in my wife's group, Jake Richardson, raised the lamb that was selected as the reserve supreme champion lamb at this year's fair.  Jake's immediate family does not make its living from production agriculture, but his brothers and his parents are extremely supportive of Jake's interest in sheep production.  Over the course of the last year, Jake has helped out on our ranch - processing new lambs, setting up fence, shearing sheep, etc.

Success in the show ring, for a kid like Jake, might be the spark I mentioned above.  Perhaps Jake's educational and career plans will include production agriculture.  If nothing else, Jake now has direct experience in, and deep appreciation for, the work that goes into producing food.

In California, our county fairs have lost state funding and are struggling to stay afloat.  The Gold Country Fair, which reflects the agricultural roots and aspirations of our community, continues to play a critical role in the education of existing and future farmers and ranchers.  While most producers are no longer introduced to the latest production systems by the 4-Hers in their family, many future producers are first introduced to the idea that farming and ranching can be a career through their fair projects.  County fairs are too important to let them disappear!

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