Ahhhh…..summer. Why does it go by so quickly? I turned around and late July is staring me in the face, as is the phenomenon that overtakes many homes in Nebraska, especially our rural areas. No rest for the weary in these places, because the county fair season is upon them.

Under the hot sun, boys and girls of all ages ride their horses, lead, bathe, and clip their market beef and hogs and sheep. Under the watchful eyes of parents who have been in those same cowboy boots, they strive valiantly to prepare their animals for the “show and shine” of their lives. Some have worked at preparing since the early spring, while others jump in after school ends and frantically play catch up. Often there are a lot of tears that mix with sweat on faces, as an animal’s unpredictable health and behavior can make or break the 4-H experience. It is a risky endeavor, full of risk and reward, as the time until show day draws near. 

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Under the shaded trees, other boys and girls tend to their gardens, work on collecting species of insects, prepare their rockets for launch, and strip and sand and finish pieces of woodwork. For them, 4-H opens the doors to a world of creative possibilities. The materials may cost many dollars, the painstaking process of completion may last all summer, but the finished products that often adorn homes for a generation, tell the story of the dedication it took to bring such a project to fruition. The prize is far beyond a small ribbon and a couple of bucks in premium money.

In the cool of most dining rooms, sewing machines whirr under the attentive mothers and grandmothers and volunteers who want to pass the skill of sewing on to young boys and girls. Brightly colored fabric and ribbon and accessories cover every inch of space as 4-Hers work to find their unique interpretation of clothing design. They toil away under the scents coming from the kitchen as others practice and practice and practice the culinary skills needed to bake the perfect cookie and ice the perfect cupcake and create the most tasty trail mix. 

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The Nebraska 4-H program curriculum now touches the lives of 1 in 3 children between the ages of 8 and 18. Many children learn about 4-H through club involvement and participating in their local county fair. Others attend 4-H extension sponsored workshops and after school programming in larger districts. The results are the same. Research has shown (through my own Master’s Thesis work) and other more professional evaluations….that 4-H DOES make a difference in the lives of those who participate….far beyond the age of 18.

I sit on my hands and close my mouth as I watch my 7 year old daughter work diligently on her Clover Kids 4-H projects. The “perfectionist” in me stays mum as she struggles to find her creative vision in decorating a picture frame, and gluing magazine pictures to her “protein collage”. She is so very proud of her work, and the opportunity to participate, almost like the “big” kids. Her bucket calf Bella, struggles against her pink and black lead rope as she resists Maggie’s efforts to walk when instructed. In one instant, I am transported some 25 years back in time as I remembered being the child that toiled and struggled for her own success, under the watchful eyes of two parents. Such memories bring tears and smiles all at the same time. Undoubtedly, the green 4-H clover, brings the same emotions for many of you. I remember thinking in those days, how much I wanted the purple ribbons and best of show. How, if I just worked a little harder, I could win the day. Well, needless to say…I own as many red ribbons as purple. And, the stories to go with those ribbons are as memorable as the purple. In fact, I dare say that the lessons learned with those less than stellar ribbons, helped me MORE in many cases than the purple. There was the time I fell off my mare as I ran the poles, and the year my steer was not market ready, and the time my sewing project didn’t get done in the time my mother tried to get me to complete it. Those stories could go on and on.

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And so I asked friends, if they could recall 4-H memories, that have made a permanent residence in their hearts, or float to the surface as they now watch the same experiences through the eyes of their children. Their shared memories made me laugh, cry, and be so ever more thankful that my parents let us and encouraged us to participate. I am happy to share them with you here, and I hope they trigger your own fond memories that you will share back with me.

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In the meantime, Godspeed to those of you frantically prepping for fair, and a big pat on the back to those who have already survived the 2015 fair season. Its not for the faint of heart!

You know 4-H when:

Katrina: You have used the calf blowdryer to blow out your child’s or your own hair… just to dry the sweat because you don’t have time to shower before the show.

Kaci: You’ve ever read a 200 page pamphlet and still don’t really feel like you know what you’re doing?!?!

Lisa: You pay $36.00 online for half a case of special shaped cookies for a cake design your daughter wants make for cake decorating that only requires a total of 3 cookies. Or when a hail storm destroys one of the plants in the fairy garden your daughter completed 10 days before entry day and you can not find replacement.

Bonnie: You buy out the candy aisle to decorate a cake for fair!

Stacie: You pull an all nighter cutting out hundreds of four leaf clovers to decorate your aisle during the county fair.

Peggy: You spent $50.00 on batteries for a wildlife project That garnered a $5.00 purple ribbon , only to have to replace them for the project to go to state because every one that went by the display had to test it.

Sheila: You spend days trying to gather everything you need for the numerous animals you are taking.

Kayla: You know exactly what It means to decorate your duds. If you know how to bathe a sheep and put a costume on a goat.

Inger: You need to “muck out” the car after fair!!!

Darcy: You have ever hidden your own fears and told your 50 pound child that her 1200+ pound steers are not going to hurt her, praying the whole time that you are speaking a truth.

Tina: You wait too long to buy mats for your photography projects and they are sold out everywhere, forcing you to spend $65 on several picture frames just to get the $2 mats out of them.

Lisa: Your kitchen floor has a layer of flour & sugar. And your freezer fills ups w/ from all the “practice” coffee cakes, breads, cookies, etc.

Erin: You know what jeans, a white button up shirt and green armband are for.

Marla: Your calves are cleaner and more well groomed than your kids. And you have spent way more money on the calves hair products in a week than you have on your own in a year!

Amy: You and your 12 year old were up until midnight painting a chair last night!!! Why do we always wait until last minute?!!!

Bethany: You remember hanging out with your friends at fair more than the prizes you won.

Crystal: You can still recite the 4-H pledge 45 years later. 

Larissa: You automatically say the 4H pledge after the Pledge of Allegiance. Record books give you nightmares!

Darlene: You show up at this year’s event and reminisce about the previous building and the “heat” from years past.

Leah: You made your dad a banana split because he climbed the cottonwood to retrieve the rocket caught in the branches.

Leslie: You love the smell of dawn dish soap because it takes you back to your sheep washing days.

Kyla: You finally realize the commitment your own parents & leaders made because you are living the same commitment today.

For more information about how YOUR family can become involved in the 4-H program, contact your local county extension office.

Leah Peterson

Leah Peterson is a native Nebraskan, living on the ranch her ancestors homesteaded in 1878. She and her husband Matt, met at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, and returned to the ranch in 2012 after working and living in Central Nebraska the past 12 years. They are parents to two daughters, Maggie and Lucy. Leah has an undergrad degree from UNL in Communication Studies, and a MA in Leadership from Bellevue University. Aside from her work at the ranch and opportunity to be a stay at home mom, she enjoys writing, photography, community involvement, spending time with friends and family and trying new recipes in her kitchen. Leah published her first children's book in 2011 titled "An Apple for Dapple" and enjoys traveling throughout the state to share her book with children and raise awareness about the importance Agriculture in Nebraska.