BEHIND THE SCENES: 4-H’ers explain investment of time spent preparing for local fairs

MECOSTA COUNTY — For most people, the first image that comes to mind when asked about what 4-H’ers do usually involves a well-dressed child or teenager showcasing an animal with professional flair at the local fair. The foundational work to prepare for the big show is rarely seen, however, and it is the day-to-day dedication 4-H club members invest in their animals that culminates into what is presented on show day.

Raising animals to show at a local fair takes up most of a 4-H club member’s year. From feeding the animals in the early mornings and afternoons, to practicing with their animals, kids put a tremendous amount of time and effort into making their animals fair-ready. For 4-H club members who have shown animals over a number of years, the time is well spent.

“I grew up on a farm and doing 4-H is the highlight of my summer,” said Megan Jones, a 4-H’er who is now in her ninth year as a club participant and will be showing a steer, five dairy cows and one pig this year at the Osceola County 4-H FFA Fair in Evart. “I love raising animals. Especially dairy. That’s my favorite.”

Elaine Nevins has shown horses at the Mecosta County Agricultural Free Fair for eight years. “I started doing 4-H because I liked horses when I was in fourth grade,” she said. “As I have grown, I realized I really like it because of the leadership, communication and public speaking skills it teaches us. It’s a great community, and we have really positive mentors.”

This year’s Mecosta County Agricultural Free Fair will take place from Monday, July 11, through Saturday, July 16, and the Osceola County 4-H FFA Fair will take place from July 25 through July 30.

For 4-H club members, the more time spent with an animal before the big day in the show ring equals an easier experience for both the animal and the showman.

“I feed my animals twice a day, and depending on my schedule I try to get out three to four times a week and brush them or bathe them and spend time with them,” Jones said. “Getting animals used to tons of people and loudness is challenging. If you don’t have a radio — or something — in the barn to get the animals used to people, it could easily cause the animals to panic, especially during the auction.”

“I usually see my animal two to three times a week for two or more hours,” Nevins said. “Making sure that you and your animal communicate really well is important. Practicing and making sure that you and they are prepared with what could happen if they have a bad day is vital. Or if you have a bad day, the horse has to know to adjust itself.”

Despite the many hours of one-on-one work that goes into raising an animal, 4-H club members are not alone in their efforts. Each 4-H’er belongs to a club and, other than mandatory meetings, they will often meet up with club members to develop friendships and work with their animals together.

For Jones, spending time with her fellow Dairy Lads & Lassie’s club members is something she looks forward to.

“I just like being with the animals — getting them ready to take to our break-out meetings where we work with other people in a practice show. That’s a lot of fun, you get to hang out with your friends and do what you like to do,” she said.

Nevins, a member of the Hooves of Thunder club, said she looks forward to club meetings because the experience builds strong relationships with her club members.

For both Jones and Nevins, working with animals is a long-term commitment that shows the fruits of their labor during the fair.

“Usually practicing with my horse is a year-round thing, but I really focus on things when it’s a few months before the show. All year I’ll get on my horse Cowboy and walk, trot and canter so he has a smooth gait, but then a few months before the show I’ll focus on his pivoting, side-stepping, flying lead changes and slowing him down,” Nevins said. “It’s a lot of work. It’s fun, but can be really stressful.”

For Jones, showing a steer is bittersweet, because, unlike other animals, steers go to market after being shown. It can be an emotional time for the 4-H’er who has become attached to their animal over the previous year.

“This year I think it will be different because my steer is so cute and he’s the roly-poliest thing I’ve ever seen for a steer,” Jones said with a laugh, then added with a hint of sorrow, “It will be probably hard to lose this one, especially because it’s my last year showing a steer.”