For farmers and ranchers, the county fair is the greatest show on earth — nearly 3000 fairs occupying more than a quarter million acres. Maybe the county fair in your county has shrunk in size, but when combined with others across the country it’s still quite a show that you guys put on.

No other industrialized country even compares, and no industry is even close to being showcased like that of agriculture. So with 4-H being the centerpiece, it embodies the spirit of farming and ranching like none other.

Having participated in most of the major livestock shows around the country as either a judge or coach, I can assure you that nothing makes the adrenaline pump like that of competing with your peers at the county level. Those that you grew up with, listening to the folklore of the one that “woulda, coulda, shoulda” won.

This is unlike that of the professionals, where strangers meet and compete for perhaps the first time. Here there is that element of money and prestige that flows like honey — a reminder of the county fair in the home economics exhibit building. But under the big top, it seemed more tarnished and tainted — like that of a “mutual admiration society”. The animal often becomes nothing more than that of a prop for a Stetson and Lizards.

There isn’t a Thanksgiving that I don’t think about the International Livestock Exposition in Chicago. It became the tradition for several years to travel the first icy, wintry roads of the season; only to be disappointed with a livestock show so totally out of character for the dirty, windy city. Take this boy back to the country; only to be off to the Fort Worth and Denver stock shows. Then it was the American Royal in Kansas City — the home of my ancestors and a taste of limited success.

The most unusual of all the shows was the Pacific International in Portland, where flight connections found me paired with a chartered plane of undertakers headed to a funeral directors convention; thoughts of scary headline images were racing through my mind — “ninety-nine undertakers and one bull shipper aboard”.

The one show of big time caliber that brought me back home and closer to my roots of the county fair was the North Dakota Winter Show. With visions of grandeur, the headline could have read: “Grand Champion Steer owned by North Dakota State University and judged by ex-student of North Dakota State University.”  There were such innuendos done in jest; much like that of neighborly county fair jocosity.

Yes — the atmosphere between the big shows and the county fairs was entirely different. Where there were friendly acquaintances and the fun-filled spirit of competition, there was now more emphasis and pressure of fame and name. Where it was once the biggest neighborly event of the year, the big shows took the competition to the level of corporate power brokers — where winning at any cost is the price of success!

There is probably a place for both, but for me, give me the county fair where I can still wake up to the crowing of a rooster down at the poultry barn. Or walk down to the 4-H food booth for breakfast, and help catch a runaway calf after being sprayed with cold water for the first time, all the time knowing everyone I met along the way.

How could you not like your neighbor, as you strolled down the midway holding your sweetheart’s hand, and feeling the magic of the lights, music and festivities?

Over the years 4-H has come to dominate most activities at the county fair. This has been without a doubt, the biggest win, and greatest achievement of the history of the county fair. It has provided a platform for which the youth of America can still compete and learn from both their achievements and mistakes.

4-H was built on the spirit of competitiveness, for which the county fair has been its greatest contributor. It is this very principle that 4-H and county fairs can point with pride to an unending parade of champions. And perhaps, even more importantly, the stepping stone for moving onto the national scene. But before making that big step, realizing that the real champions are those kids hanging on to the end of those lead ropes; knowing that the way to the winner’s circle comes by way of experience.

I can assure you that I speak from experience when I express the accolades of 4-H and association with county fairs. It is with the greatest sense of humility that I credit them both with any and all of the successes I’ve enjoyed in life.

Though I’ve known my share of failure, it is the experience of those days that gave me direction in life — became the foundation of my vocation, and taught me always to be competitive, to strive to be the best and to win without always being the winner.

May 4-H continue to grow and strengthen the county fairs in the tradition for which it has lasted all these many years. The 4-H (Head-Heart-Hands-Health) organization began in rural America in the early 1900’s; about the same time as that of many of the county fairs. This was done in conjunction with Congress to have youngsters learn about agriculture, forestry, conservation, and home economics by participating in these various activities. All have benefited from the association of 4-H and county fairs, but none more than that of livestock.

Today, most county fairs have become primarily 4-H livestock shows, for which all of 4-H has benefited from the positive development of individual lives.

Leadership and livestock have become the primary benefactors of the biggest show on earth.