It’s happening. I knew that this day would come, but I didn’t know how it would make me feel. The day hasn’t actually happened, yet, but my social media feed has started to increase its coverage of posts about these days happening across the nation, thus increasing my sadness when I think about the looming day.
What is this dreaded day? The answer is simple: my first county fair that I won’t exhibit at.
Maybe this day is approaching quickly for you, too. Perhaps this day passed you by a few years ago, and you’re here to tell me that the sting of pain gets better with time. Or, if you’re lucky, you still have time before this dreaded day falls upon you, due to age or your fair being more active with FFA than mine.
Let me start by saying that if you weren’t in 4-H, this may not apply to you. Hopefully, I can share a bit of the impact that 4-H has made, so you understand this dreaded day. You see, county fair populations can be split into three categories: the people who run the fair, the spectators, and the exhibitors. For 13 years, I played the part of exhibitor at my county fair as a 4-H member. It was literally a time of blood, sweat, and tears, but also a time that I wouldn’t trade for anything. County fair has a different meaning for everyone, from catching up with friends, romance, or great food. For exhibitors, it’s a time to showcase months of preparation and hard work.
I remember the nerves that came with my first county fair. As a nervous Cloverkid, I clung to my mom’s hand as we checked in my decorated shirt, scratched tomatoes, and pencil cup that had more glue on it than yarn. She sat with me as I interviewed with the judges, but made me do all of the talking; a feat for a shy five-year-old. The next day, we walked through the exhibit hall to look at all of the projects. When we found mine, I was amazed that I got a ribbon, just like the older kids who I looked up to.
There was the time that I won my first purple ribbon, and the pride that I felt having my first project selected for state fair. The first time I won champion showman in the cattle show is a memory that will always be with me. But, although the awards are nice, they aren’t what mattered most.
The months spent working with heifers to get them to the right point taught me patience and vision. The weeks spent studying photography techniques and camera settings so I could finally get a purple ribbon with a photograph made me determined. The days spent hunched over a dress, perfecting my seam finish and hem, gave me an eye for detail. Getting a purple ribbon or being named champion after putting in the time and effort on these projects meant the world to me, as it does to exhibitors everywhere.
As I grew older, I discovered that investing in other exhibitors was the most rewarding part of county fair to me. Competing alongside exhibitors whom I had mentored was a unique, gratifying feeling. My last county fair will forever be remembered as showing heifers with kids whom I had helped brush their first calves. In the moment, I was just happy to be done showing that day in my long sleeve shirt. I didn’t realize how much I would miss the experience that gave me the biggest confidence booster ever. It’s not that I need a ribbon to be rewarded for my work on a project anymore, but knowing that I no longer have a place to showcase my work and receive feedback for improvement is hitting home.
So, here I am, two weeks away from the first county fair that I won’t exhibit at. As I walk through the exhibits and watch the livestock show, I know that there will be a pang of emptiness as I don’t compete. But I’ll reflect on the lessons learned and memories made, and hopefully find joy in a new sense.