Tomorrow starts county fair livestock show judging season for me. I have been judging county fairs since I graduated from college, and I would hate to think how many I have done in the past nearly 30 years. When I was young, dumb and single I judged as many as I could fit into my schedule. Then time and responsibilities started to creep in, and I found myself having other things that really should be a priority.
A couple of years ago, I told myself I was going to retire from county fair judging. It was time to hand it over to younger, more eager judges who could handle the late nights or early mornings better – someone who did not have as many commitments. That sort of worked for a year or two. I had myself down to one or two contests that I did for a friend and that is pretty much the case yet.
This year I took on four shows. That is not many, especially compared to the number I did when I was younger. I had many weeks right out of college that I did four in a week. Now, I think four is a good number and I am really looking forward to them. I may change my mind when I have to leave before the sun is up, but I am still excited.
Yes, I have hay I still need to be baling and lots of other tasks that I should be doing but I am willing to make the sacrifice. I promise you I will have something happen at each show that will remind me why I still judge. I would invite all of you to go to your local county fair and you will see what I mean. It will make you feel so much better about the future.
Often times my memorable moments do not involve the individual that receives the champion ribbon, but it is one of the youths who placed a little farther down the line. They are the youth who will come up to me after the show and want more information about what they could do to be better. Or they may simply be proud of their project and want to tell me more about it, and that is my favorite part.
I am now a former 4-H parent and I understand what goes on behind the scenes before the fair. That is the part I miss. I understand the getting up extra early in the morning to beat the heat or working after the sun goes down. I understand being proud of what you have and making it the best you can knowing that finishing in the middle of the pack is a victory.
I know the hours of dedication and the amount of responsibility a livestock project brings, and I respect each contestant for the commitment. It is a level of dedication and hard work that I wish we could bottle up and sell because there are a lot of adults that could sure use it. The youth at a county fair livestock show have learned lessons too many people never get, and we should all be proud of that.
There is a lot about the show ring that I am not happy with, but the overwhelming majority is very good, and I am willing to make sacrifices to do my share to give the kids the opportunity to participate. By encouraging youth to participate in shows we are developing young people who know where their food comes from and the hard work it takes to get it to the plate. More importantly we are cultivating work ethic, responsibility, and the ability to care for another living being. Those skills will carry over to any profession.
Yes, a few of the contestants will get the trophies, banners or buckles, but many will not. They will get something more valuable. I often say that only one contestant will leave completely happy with my decision, and that is unfortunate. I wish I could give them all a trophy for getting their project to that point but someday they will look back and realize that the trophies only gather dust. What is more important are the skills gained and the memories that are made.
Please, this summer go to a county fair but do not just go for the show. Go early and watch the preparations and stay afterward. Walk through the barns and ask the kids about their projects and prepare to be amazed. I promise you will get more of an answer than you ever dreamed of. You will find out about the trials and tribulations it took to complete the project. You will find out about the good things and probably a few of the challenges. More than anything you will be able to see the look of accomplishment and hear the pride in their voice.
Yes, I have hay on the ground and fence that needs to be fixed, but the time I spend away judging county fairs is just as important and maybe more important in the long run. The best part is that I get as much out of it as the kids, and that is why I will not retire from judging.
Glenn Brunkow is a fifth-generation farmer in the Northern Flint Hills of Pottawatomie County in Kansas. He was a county Extension educator for 19 years before returning to farm and ranch full time. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.