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Serving: IN

What will county fairs in Indiana be like in the future?

Tom J. Bechman Parke County Fair swine show
STRONG SHOW: Parke County, Ind., took two days for its swine show this year. The barrow show drew several hundred people to watch.
Livestock projects are still strong, but interest in other projects is waning.

The trend toward fewer traditional 4-H exhibits outside of livestock barns isn’t new. We’ve discussed it before and invited discussion about root causes. Coming out of 2020, when many fairs didn’t happen live, it’s good to see people live at fairs again. Some fairs still instituted some COVID-19 restrictions, while others observed only minimal restrictions. But as good as it is to see fairs back in person, it doesn’t mask an underlying trend: in most counties, the number of traditional 4-H exhibits outside of livestock is dwindling.

When does a trend become reality? When it happens year after year, it’s difficult to deny or explain away as a temporary situation. Here are some observations. They are anecdotal. But when you see the same situations over and over, perception just might be reality!

In Ohio County, Ind., Extension educators offered a workshop to help 4-H members learn how to make more-competitive posters. Only two members showed up, and there weren’t tons of posters at the fair.

One parent from Ohio County observed that her kids, even though they live in the country and enjoy the outdoors, don’t seem as interested in going outside and being active after COVID. They’ve become too used to lounging and running their video games with their fingers. That may be a factor, but the number of exhibits was slipping long before the pandemic.

In Lawrence County, Ind., the number of photography exhibits was down so much this year that the photography judges, usually pressed for time, had time to kill. Those who exhibited did well, but the numbers were missing.

One parent says kids have too many demands on their time today. Sports have become year-round activities. Businesses beg for students to work when they aren’t in school. Some have access to literally 500 channels on satellite or cable TV. And then there are those video games.

In Parke County, Ind., while livestock shows were strong, only seven crop exhibits were entered. The superintendent of that project noted interest was way down and commented that as older members completed their 4-H careers, newer members weren’t entering those projects.

Future fairs?

How long will counties continue with traditional projects in areas where interest is waning? Will county fairs in 2030 be livestock shows only, without other projects? Are projects other than livestock no longer useful to kids?

Only county leaders and Extension staff can answer the first question, and it may be county by county. Personally, I hope fairs 10 years from now are still places to see more than livestock shows. What I can comment on most is that yes, there are still many things to learn from other projects.

Collecting leaves and identifying them in forestry is just as valuable today as it was decades ago. Is it exciting and flashy? No. There is tons of helpful information tucked away in 4-H manuals, but fewer and fewer kids each year are using them and learning that kind of information. Some projects have already been updated. Maybe updating others would help.

I don’t have lots of answers. I know that when youngsters interact with judges about their projects, learning happens. I also know that if you care about the kids of the future, we need to continue the 4-H conversation. Together, perhaps we can find ways to keep 4-H relevant and help more kids get involved.

Comments? Email [email protected].

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