Twenty years after being crowned the Allamakee County Fair Queen, I still feel the euphoric effects of small-town America's favorite week of the year.
I say small-town America's favorite week of the year because the county fair is much more than carnival rides, snow cones, and blue ribbons. The lessons I learned while being active in 4-H, and FFA played an integral role in my developing into the business owner that I am today. I am forever grateful for these two programs, how they've shaped me as a leader, and how they groomed me for this dream job I’m living.
I recall the emphasis that was put on the written documentation behind Home Improvement and Visual Arts projects I exhibited at the Allamakee County Fair. I recollect several judges asking me, ”What will you do differently next time?” What a great question.
Although I wore the crown and held the most desired title of the week so many years ago, during that summer of 2003, I speak from embarrassed experience that I sometimes need reminders to see the true impact of the county fair from year to year. Which is why I’m writing this article, to help me remember, “What would I do differently next time?” I didn't expect this blog post to be so emotionally challenging to write, so I apologize for the month-long delay. I also didn't mean for this post to emphasize money heavily, but as the saying goes, "Money talks."
Let's reminisce on those middle years, which means my post-Fair Queen reign in 2003 but before me being a small business owner in my hometown community in 2023. These past two decades, I have always proudly verbally supported the aspirations and determination of 4-H and FFA Members. During those in-between years, I wish I had been more conscious of actively promoting the small-town county fairs in our region instead of just saying I was a proud supporter.
Of course, I spoke highly of the county fair during my late teenage years and during my 20s. Sure, I'd hit up the grandstand events at Howard, Winneshiek, and Allamakee Counties as often as my schedule allowed. Still, during that vicennial, I apparently had forgotten the true meaning behind the fair.
What is the true meaning behind the fair? The county fair provides a rewarding opportunity for young people to develop skills necessary for life success. As soon as your boots cross the threshold into one of the livestock barns at the fairgrounds, you’ll witness young people developing communication and leadership skills. Within the walls of the exhibit buildings, you’ll observe thoughtful goal-setting, disciplined step-following, and well-executed projects completed by kids who have identified their talents. 4-H’ers and FFA members’ work ethic, responsibility, and sportsmanship skills will be pretty evident no matter where you look.
So- What would I do differently next time? If I could go back and re-do my 20’s at the County Fair, I’d…
✜ Volunteer to learn the ins and outs. It’s easy to complain about how someone else has done something when you’ve convinced yourself that you could do something better. But could you REALLY? Don’t like the chosen entertainment? Volunteer to learn just how much “famous” entertainment costs. Don’t like how the show is run? Volunteer to learn why it is run that way and earn the opportunity to offer constructive opinions.
✜ Buy the grandstand button/tickets. I’d think twice about asking a friend to pass their button through the fence. I’d just buy the button/ticket book and consider it a good deed done. Is $30 really too much to ask when in the grand scheme of planning, the volunteers are coordinating a week full of activities that benefit thousands of people? I’ve spent $30 on stupider things.
✜ Eat as many meals as possible at the 4-H Food Stand- heck, order order the pie and ice cream, too. Instead of pulling into the chain-store gas station for a quick bite to eat before the motocross, consider paying $1-2 extra dollars for the locally raised beef burger prepared by the 4-H’ers. Chances are, working the food stand is their most important fundraiser for the year, and trust me, most of the kids don’t “want” to be there. They’ve got other things to do, animals to feed and poop to scoop, but if they don’t already know their role in the food chain, this is their best chance to learn it.
✜ Carefully comb through the exhibit buildings and high-five the kids for their creativity and attention to detail.
✜ Roam the barns, take note of the kids [not the parents] tending to the livestock: washing, feeding, cleaning, etc. Offer a congratulatory message to both kids and the parents for putting in the investment and the hours.
✜ Share a heartfelt “thank you” to the fair board member, volunteer, parent, person etc. that you see going above and beyond to make someone else’s experience better. If you pay attention, you’ll be able to dish out hundreds of thanks.
✜ Post the pictures. Sharing is caring. Take as much time to brag about a worthy cause, such as the county fair, as you do private messaging your co-workers silly memes that we all enjoy so much. It's easy to help keep the "buzz" going and getting more and more people interested.
Fast forward to my late 30’s in 2023. Knowing all of these things that I know now.
Although sale day at the end of the county fair is a devastating end to small-town America's favorite week of the year for many, it gives me a reason to share this blog post, prompting any reader to consider, ”What will you do differently next time?”
Since I didn’t personally show livestock at the fair, I never realized how important the last puzzle piece of the fair, the livestock auction, was for the exhibitors. I’ve seen all of the “empty halter” posts on social media, but never had I felt the tears streaming down my cheeks for this reason first-hand.
On Auction Day at the Allamakee County Fair last month, I witnessed many hard-working families spend their last dollars at the county fair. They bought the livestock, the feed, the supplies, AND the grandstand buttons, tickets, and meals from the 4-H food stand, only to know the most expensive lesson yet was to come when they drove home with the empty halter in hand.
That day, I let the emotions do the bidding and I enjoyed the honor of purchasing my employee, Gracelyn's steer. Although I exceeded my budget, I was pleased to solidify my example of praise for her efforts and the entire county fair experience with cold, hard cash. I hadn’t prepared to spend as much as a year’s worth of billboard advertising on a steer that day, but I knew in my heart that this young lady had earned every penny.
Not only did she and the other 4-Hers spend a year setting goals, learning how to care for animals, how to win, and how to lose, but they also built everlasting relationships and learned how to respect the volunteers, judges, and other parental figures around the grounds.
Nearly every day for the past month, I’ve beamed with pride each time I opened my freezer full of home-raised, local beef to feed my family healthily. My kids, 9 & 6, have also had a stake in [pardon my pun] this feeling of fulfillment while devouring the home-cooked meal we prepared as a family.
I still won’t say I have it all figured out, but I can say I’ve come to appreciate the community service and volunteers for these programs so much more. Now that I’ve identified my shortcomings in my past, I have a clear road map for what I can do to make each coming year a more beneficial experience for everyone.
Please join me in physically showing up to the County Fair. Remember, you’re not just buying a piece of pie and ice cream in the 4-H Stand. You are acknowledging the hard work and dedication of our farming community. You are proving your thanks to the volunteers and leaders and supporting the heart and soul of the county fair. One dollar at a time, together, we can make a difference.