Thursday, August 14, 2014

More than Champions

Fair season is all but over; I think that is a good thing although I am always sad to see it end. There are very few things in this world that bring me more joy than attending youth livestock shows. I know there are some reasons for concern with the show ring and maybe someday we can open that can of worms. However, right now I want to focus on all that is right.
Often much focus is placed on the champion animals at any show. This is for good reason and they are to be admired and appreciated. Often many hours of hard work go into the development of that grand champion animal. Years of meticulous breeding, the best in nutrition, many resources and lots of time spent training and grooming. I commend anyone who exhibited a champion at any level this year, I hope you had the chance to appreciate and enjoy the experience.
While champion ribbons, trophies and belt buckles are coveted and rightfully so. They are the rewards for a job well done, I often wonder in our chase for the buckle if we are missing the bigger picture. I guess maybe it is my perspective as a former Extension Agent, but I see a lot of value in some of the lessons learned by the exhibitors not at the top of the class. I have seen it as a judge also, the kids who have animals that will never compete for the top of the class but who have gotten all they could out of what they have. I have a deep admiration and appreciation for those kids.
I think maybe I have focused on this more this year because our 4-H club just graduated two young men who exemplify what I am talking about. They have both had successes in their 4-H career but the champion ribbon has always just been out of reach. The livestock they bring to the fair gain well, they are very good commercial animals but not show animals and in the end that is OK. The rewards they have gotten will not tarnish or fade with time but will serve them for the rest of their lives.
What I have seen over the years are two hard working young men who understand the animal agriculture. I watched them take care of their projects with very little or no help. Not because their parents won’t help them, but because they don’t need too. I am learning with my older 4-Hers that the hardest thing to get used to as a parent and the most rewarding part is that if we do our job right we become obsolete.
Both of them understand the entire process of bringing that animal to the fair. They have taken the leadership role in selecting their project, deciding what and how much to feed, caring for that animal daily and taking the ultimate responsibility for producing the product that reaches your table. Without a doubt I have confidence that they have an understanding of animal agriculture that reaches far beyond the show ring.
In addition, they are good people. I know they would have been, even without 4-H, but I would like to think their experience has further developed them. They are the first to roll up their sleeves and go to work. Both of them have taken the time to work with the younger members of our club and other 4-Hers. The true sign of how great these two young men are is that I saw all of this when they did not know I or any other adult were watching. They helped others because it was the right thing to do.
I did not intentionally leave out any of the great kids who participated in their last county; instead I focused on the two I had the privilege to watch up close for the past ten years. I joked with them about being sad during the fair partially because I was sad to see them go. I am proud of Lane and Tyler and for all they have accomplished even if it does not include a champion ribbon or a shiny buckle. I believe they both will go on to positively impact animal agriculture and in the end that is the greatest accomplishment of all.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Twas the Night Before the Fair

Today is one of the most dreaded days of the year at our house. It is the day before the fair. Each year we swear we are going to be more organized and have more done much earlier in the summer and make this day less stressful. Well, we all know what road is paved with good intentions that would be the road leading to the fair. I am not sure what road you thought I was talking about.
In any case, each year we wake up on the day before the fair with one goal. Survive and move on to the fair. We plan this day out in advance and it should all work but I am convinced that the hours are only 50 minutes long on this particular day because we seem to run out of time before we run out of things to do. However, a shortage of time is not the biggest problem of the day.
The day before the fair is the day that we have major breakdowns and calamities. No matter how smooth things have been all summer, something and often several somethings will happen on this fateful day. For instance, one year, the day before the fair, our normally very strong, very reliable well went dry on fair eve. That caused wide-spread fear, panic and hysteria on top of normal fair stress.
This year was no different. Earlier in the week, I had made the shocking discovery that we did not have enough sheep feed to make it through the fair. This was partially due to my miscalculation and partially due to the ewes getting into the barn and making a horrible mess. The week before the fair was in full swing complete with Murphy’s law.
However, this trip to Clay Center seemed very fortuitous. The afternoon before we had ruined a big tire on one of our tractors. A new set of rear tires was not in the budget and a search for used tires revealed a couple in Clay Center. Maybe our day before the fair luck was changing, or maybe it was just setting us up for bigger calamities.
It was a good plan, run a couple of errands in Manhattan, drive up to Clay Center, deliver the tire and make it back to Manhattan for a doctor’s appointment. The day started off smoothly, in fact, we were ahead of schedule. Then it all started coming unraveled. At a stop on the way to Clay Center a spot of oil was noticed under the pick-up. Cause for concern but not necessarily alarm. Not until the next stop and I noticed a bigger spot of oil and a nice coating of oil under the entire truck.
A quick check of the dipstick revealed that the oil leak was cause for concern. A quick conference call determined that our chosen course of action was for me to add oil and drive to my house watching the oil pressure gauge all the way.  If the gauge wavered at all, I would pull off to the side of the road and call for help. A tense drive home ensued but the gauge held steady and we made it, although by now we were around a half an hour behind schedule.
The drippy truck was parked. I sent Isaac and the tire to the field with the afflicted tractor and I started back to Manhattan and the appointment with the doctor just a little behind schedule. After the visit with the doctor it was time to shear lambs and make them pretty for the show. What else could happen?
The kids were taking six lambs and we had already sheared them once so this was just touch up work. No problem, it shouldn’t take very long. However, shortly after we started on the first lamb, the clippers and blower went dead. Probably a tripped breaker, maybe blown fuse, but it should be an easy fix. Maybe most days but not the day before the fair. No blown fuses or tripped breakers could be found. We located an extension cord long enough to snake from the house to the sheep clipping area and the problem was fixed.
I am sure that someday we will look upon all of the day before the fair wrecks with fondness and even laugh. That is probably many years in the future, maybe while we are watching our kids and grandkids scrambling to get ready for the fair.  Right now this not amusing, however, we will learn from our mistakes and be more organized next year. We will be easy to spot at the fair; we will be the ones with flying pigs.

County Fair Time

Where has this summer gone? I am not sure about anybody else but I cannot believe that the majority of this summer is now in the rearview mirror. I had so many plans for the kids and I this summer and very few actually happened. I guess I do have a couple of weeks to squeeze as much work out of them as I can before they go back to school.
Yes, summer is about over but my favorite part of summer is just about here, the Pottawatomie County Fair. I am not a big fan of the two weeks leading up to fair and all of the frantic, last minute preparations (don’t even try to tell me that anybody out there is any different) but I really enjoy our county fair. The county fair is the culmination of a long year of work for our 4-Hers and a celebration of all they have accomplished.
I am kind of partial to our fair, but I have now judged in somewhere around sixty of our counties and one or two counties in Nebraska and I can tell you that nothing beats a county fair. Each county has its own unique quirks, foods and events but in each fair many of the same qualities carry through. Each fair is a piece of Americana that most people do not get to experience and for that is sad. Maybe a lot of our problems would be solved if everyone was required to attend a county fair.
People who had never attended a county fair could learn a lot about hard work. The livestock and countless other projects exhibited at the fair represent hours and hours of hard work in preparing them to be displayed. Most often they are a family project involving parents and kids and family teamwork is a rare thing in today’s society. 4-H projects represent good kids, learning real skills and working hard. All of society can learn from that.
Any lost soul who has not attended a county fair would also see volunteerism in its finest form. At any county fair you will find someone who is tired, dirty and sweaty and most likely they will be a fair board member, fair volunteer or 4-H leader who are working long hard hours both before and during the fair. They do this because of their love of the fair and all it represents and never ever think a thing about it or expect anything in return.
Community pride is also something that seems to be going by the wayside in our current society. Each fair I have ever attended or been a part of has a great deal of community pride associated with it. People are proud of what their county has to offer. Nothing can tell you more about a county and its people than the fair parade and the entries that come down the street. One note of caution would be to remember that this year is an election year. Much like the ants at a picnic, overlook the politicians and enjoy the parade.
Finally, to me the most important part of my county fair is the relationships and friendships that are formed and renewed during the fair. Often it is the only time of the year that we see some of our friends. Many people come back to their hometowns during the fair. It is also about the only time we have out of our busy hectic lives to sit down and have real conversations without worrying about where we have to go next. If you have never attended a county fair and you were dropped into the middle of one you would see human interaction at its finest and the real value of true friendship. I know our society could use more of that.
I cannot imagine what my life would be like if I had not gotten to observe and be a part of all of the county fairs that I have experienced. From being completely immersed in the Pottawatomie County Fair as first a 4-Her, then the agent, parent and volunteer, to the many other fairs I have judged at or simply attended, I have seen the true value of what the fair brings. It is truly something that all of society could benefit from.
I would urge you, if you are not a part of a county fair, to find one and attend. Go take in the shows and watch the hard working 4-Hers. Watch the volunteers work with those youth, and others work behind the scenes. Sit down at a picnic table and enjoy a meal from the foodstand and watch all the activity. Watch friends talk, kids play and all the buzz of activity. I hope you will take the time to attend a fair; it is a time to relax and reflect about all that is good.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Humor at the Sheep Show

I am convinced that there are times that God puts you in certain situations and places just because he has a sense of humor. We all have those times when we are just taking ourselves too seriously and letting the events around us drag us down. That is when we need to be reminded to laugh and enjoy life just a little more. I am absolutely sure I experienced one of those times just a couple of weeks ago.
My kids got the opportunity to attend and show at the All American Junior Sheep show in Hutchinson. The All American is a big deal and brought in youth from all across the United States. All of the major breeds were represented. My hats are off to all of the great people from Kansas who had the vision and put all the hard work into bringing this event to us.
We entered six sheep in the show and left home with high hopes. In the back of our minds we knew it was going to be tough, but you always have that hope that maybe your expectations will be exceeded. The kids were going up against some of the best sheep and the best youth showmen from around the U.S. Five of our six sheep showed on Saturday and it was a long day. The temperatures were blazing hot and the show started to drag on. I am exceedingly proud of my kids and the job they did fitting and showing their lambs. However, fuses started to get short, people and sheep alike started to get hot and tired. It was time to watch the show by myself for a while.
Under the guise of trying to figure out which class was in the arena I left and found a nice secluded place, just in back of the arena. Soon I became aware of a little boy, maybe two or three years old, sitting on a blocking stand eating a McDonalds Quarter Pounder. I knew it was a Quarter Pounder because the box lay open next to him on the stand.
He was your Norman Rockwell, cute, blonde headed, blue eyed, All-American kid with a summer-time flat top and he was going to town on that Quarter Pounder like there was no tomorrow. He would chow down on the hamburger then look up at me while he chewed and grin. By now his face was covered with ketchup and mustard and his lap was full of various parts of the cheeseburger. His cheesy grin (yes, I did that on purpose) started to ease my tension a little and I found myself smiling.
Suddenly Mom, Grandma and sister approached the little boy. They were waiting on the next class and I recognized the harried, tired look in their eyes. Mom looked down at her son, who by know was completely lost in his dining experience. “Where did you get the cheeseburger?” she asked. Her son was either so engrossed in the cheeseburger that he did not respond or maybe he had decided to plead the fifth. Either way he did not answer.
Then she turned to sister and Grandmother and asked both if they had given Junior the sandwich in question. Both were adamant in their denial. Again the boy’s mother asked where he had obtained the cheeseburger. This time he looked up and pointed a ketchup stained finger across the aisle at a McDonalds sack lying on its side. Suddenly a horrified look spread across the mother’s face, one of those looks only another parent could recognize.
She looked around and apparently did not see anyone, I of course was doing my best to look inconspicuous and stifle my laughter. She snatched the offending cheeseburger from her son’s hands, placed in back in its box, slipped across the aisle and put it back in the bag like nothing had ever happened. That is when we made eye contact. She turned pale and I couldn’t stifle my laugh anymore.
Somehow my now uncontrolled laughter seemed to make her feel more at ease. Maybe she recognized a fellow parent who had been there and felt her pain. In any case, Mom quickly herded Grandma, sister and cheeseburgler son back to where ever they needed to be. This left me chuckling and just a little more relaxed. I made my way back to my family and when I told the story to them it had a similar effect. The tension of a long day was relaxed and I was left with further proof of God’s sense of humor.

Ike's Southdowns

Last weekend my children exhibited sheep at the All American Junior Sheep Show help at the Kansas State Fairgrounds in Hutchinson. This was a national show with exhibiters from most of the states representing several breeds of sheep. It was our first time to show on the national level and it was a great experience, if not a little humbling. 
Isaac brought four of his Southdown sheep to the show. Isaac has had an appreciation for Southdown sheep for several years now. It all started with a whether named Rambo and has led to his own flock. Isaac has ten Southdown ewes that he received thanks to the Starter Flock program through the Kansas Sheep Association.  The idea behind the Starter Flock was to help youth buy  their own flocks and it has been a great experience for him.
We had been planning our trip to the All American for a couple of years now and Isaac purchased a yearling Southdown ewe through an on-line sale in Texas. Getting Texas Ruby home was an experience in and of itself and one that Isaac was responsible for. In addition to Ruby, Isaac exhibited three other lambs that originated in his small flock. We loaded them and Tatum’s sheep in the trailer and left for the show hopeful and excited, not knowing what to expect.
Tatum and I arrived on Thursday and got everything set up and the sheep washed. Isaac and Jennifer arrived late that night after they got off of work. Watching all the exhibiters and the sheep come in was an interesting experience in itself. We saw large show strings in shiny aluminum trailers with the farm name emblazoned on the side. Large entourages of people would unpack lots of sparkling equipment, put up banners and begin fitting the multitude of sheep.
On the other end of the spectrum we saw many trucks with homemade boxes in the back with a couple of sheep. No banners were displayed and most of their equipment bore the marks of being well-used. We fell into the wide spectrum of exhibiters much closer to the bottom than the top. Still, after surveying the competition Isaac felt pretty good about his small show string and began to get them ready for the show the next morning.
The next morning Isaac spent a great deal of time washing, clipping and working on his sheep. I was very proud of the way he fitted his sheep and with very little help from any of us adults. I have to admit that his sheep looked much better than they would have if I had fitted them. It amazed me just how much he had picked up about fitting over the years and how well he had applied it. The anticipation for the show had reached its peak and it was time for the first lamb to enter the show ring.
First up was Elliot, his ram, I must admit that I thought he looked very competitive out in the ring. However, the judge did not see things the way I did and Elliot finished fifteenth out of fifteen in his class. It was really disappointing, but we had to remember that he was competing with some of the best Southdown breeders. The other three lambs of Isaac’s got similar results, Isaac was very disappointed at this point. His sheep looked good but they just weren’t the type the judge was looking for.
Back at the pens I could tell he was a little down and I asked why. His response was that he could never compete with the larger farms that had more money and a staff of professional fitters. I thought about it for a minute and asked him if he had done the best job he could have done. He responded with a yes. Then I asked him if he was proud of the sheep. To this he answered that they were the type of sheep he wanted to raise and he was very satisfied with them. I then told him that because of this, he had had a successful show and he had received an even more important life lesson from the experience.
No matter what profession you go into there will always be someone with more money, talent or luck than you; happiness and contentment cannot be defined by being the most successful or winning first place. If that is what is most important to you, your life will be more frustrating than satisfying. The pursuit of success or first place is not a bad thing but it should not be the only thing. True happiness is found from doing the best you can with what you have. That was the lesson Isaac learned and in the end it will be more valuable than any prize or premium he could have won last weekend.