For many youth across Montana, summer means school is out and it is time to work with those 4-H animals because the county fair will be fast approaching. Due to COVID-19 and the continual health concerns associated with its transfer, county fairs across Montana are going to look very different this year. Fair boards and individual county Extension agents have been forced to have some very difficult discussions these last few weeks as they decided exactly what to do.
“Two months ago we were wondering if we even could have any semblance of a fair,” expressed Todd Kesner, director of Montana 4-H.
These unprecedented times have left fair officials scrambling. Montana is opening up in phases, directed by the Governor, but there is not a timeline as to when these phases will occur. During phase one, gathering of people was restricted to 10 or less, which was a very difficult logistical hurdle to navigate when it came to making recommendations for county fairs, Kesner explained. Montana entered phase two in mid-May, which allows for gatherings of 50 or more people, but still, that number is a far cry away from what usually attends 4-H shows and livestock sales.
Despite the constant shifting and uncertainty surrounding the current COVID-19 situation, 4-H and county officials are working hard to at least provide some sort of a fair and livestock sale for the 4-H youth.
“Something I’m really proud of is our agents across the state didn’t just throw up their hands and say, ‘No fairs.’ They have found a way to make it happen,” Kesner said.
Kesner went on to say, ultimately, decisions on how to run the fair and livestock sale is being completely left up to the individual county officials. Montana State University Extension is offering as much support as possible, but they respect that each county is affected differently by the coronavirus.
Some county fairs will not be open to the public, while others will host shows in their arenas as the grandstands offer more room for social distancing. Some livestock sales will be offered via video feed, as well, to ensure the exhibitors still have an opportunity to add to their college funds.
“If there was ever a time to thank your county agents and your county volunteers, it’s this year,” Kesner pointed out.
County officials across the state are diligently working despite the challenges because they know as well as anybody, 4-H is ultimately about the youth. 4-Hers, like 16-year-old Brighton Lane, live for their county fair, and she for one is determined to still enjoy her 2020 fair, no matter what.
Since the age of eight, Lane has been heavily involved in showing pigs, as well as cattle. Lane approaches her 4-H projects as if they are a job. While most Montana school children enjoyed their “corona-cation” from school, Lane saw it as an opportunity to spend some quality time with her animals.
As early-season jackpot shows were canceled and with the latest blow being the cancellation of Montana State Fair, Lane admits she had a flood of emotions.
“It was honestly really scary. You go through all this effort, you buy the animal and put in the time and to think that end goal could be completely snatched away or completely changed, it was so crazy. The worst part was no one knew what was happening, we just had to sit and wait,” Lane explained.
Lane’s end goal with her livestock is Montana Fair in Billings, set to be held Aug. 7-15 this year. As of print, Montana Fair is still a go, but there was a time when that wasn’t for certain. Lane’s county Extension agent asked her to make a video to post on social media expressing what the Montana Fair meant to her and why it would be important to hold the show.
In the video, Lane and her Charolaise cross steer, Oakley, addressed the camera with poise and professionalism. Lane’s message was clear and concise, with the take home message being that county fairs are important to a lot of people and participation in them is about more than just the blue ribbon or the coveted livestock sale.
“To me and many other kids that exhibit livestock, it’s about more than showing. It’s about the people that you meet and the friendships. It’s about the connection you have with the animals and growing closer with your family,” Lane said.
Lane says since in-person school was cancelled for the remainder of 2020, she was able to really focus on her animals and she is proud of the way they look. That self-pride of knowing a job well done is potentially a better feeling then any grand-champion rosette or top selling price could ever bring.
“You can’t control what happens, but you can control how much work and effort you put into your animals,” Lane concluded.
With this global pandemic forcing so many changes onto the world, it may be hard to see a silver lining, but the current unrest has at least allowed the opportunity for reflection. With certain standby events on the cusp of being taken way for 2020, individuals are being forced to examine exactly what those events mean to them and it is coming to light that county fairs, for example, hold a deeper meaning.
The 2020 Montana county fair season is certainly going to be a bit different this year, but with a few tweaks, county fairs can still happen and continue to offer success and project closure to their youth participants.