For farmers and ranchers, the county fair is the biggest 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…

County Fairs — The Biggest Show On Earth

For farmers and ranchers, the county fair is the biggest 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 – people that you grew up with and listened to the folklore of the one that would-a, could-a, should-a won.

This is unlike that of the professionals, where strangers meet and compete for perhaps the first time. There is an element of money and prestige that flows like honey, that is a reminder of the county fair in the home economics exhibit building. Under the big-top it seems more tarnished and tainted, like that of a mutual admiration society. The animal often becomes nothing more then 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 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. I would take this boy back to the country, only to be off to the Fort Worth and Denver stock shows. Next it was onto 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 frightening 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 the neighborly county fair jocosity.

Yes, the atmosphere between the big shows and the county fairs was quite different. There were congenial acquaintances and the fun filled spirit of competition. Now there was more emphasis and pressure of fame and name. It was once the biggest neighborly event of the year, now the big shows took competition to the level of corporate power brokers. Winning at any cost was 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, walk down to the 4-H food booth for breakfast, and help catch a run-away calf who was sprayed with cold water for the first time. All the time I knew  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 is without a doubt, the biggest win and greatest achievement in 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  and the county fair has been its greatest contributor. It is on this very principle that 4-H and county fairs can point with pride to an  unending  parade of champions. Perhaps, even more importantly, the stepping stone for moving onto the national scene. Before making that big step, realize that the real champions are those kids hanging on to the end of those lead ropes; knowing that the way to the winners circle comes by the 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. It became the foundation of my vocation, and taught me to always 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 then that of livestock. Today, most county fairs have become primarily 4-H livestock shows, and 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!