STILLWATER, Okla. – The state fair is more than an opportunity to eat a deep-fried candy bar, take a ride on a roller coaster or just sit back and watch people. The Oklahoma State Fair and county fairs statewide historically have been opportunities for Oklahoma 4-H’ers to exhibit their work from the last year and compete for a coveted blue ribbon.

However, the crowds at county fairgrounds this year will be much thinner or entirely absent. Officials with the Oklahoma State Fair announced the annual event will not be held this fall due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But all is not lost for 4-H’ers who were planning exhibits and prepping show animals for the fair season, said Steve Beck, state 4-H program leader.

“The fair is an opportunity for club members to show mastery of their project, but it’s the experience of working on and completing the project where much of the learning of life skills comes from,” Beck said. “While it’s certainly disappointing not being able to show projects at the county or state fair this year, the work and effort are still front and center. The youth still had opportunities to bond and work with caring adults. Not participating in the fair doesn’t negate all of the learning and building of life skills that has already taken place.”

For Becky Walker, tradition is the word that comes to mind when she thinks of the county fair.

“The county fair has always been a time for 4-H members to showcase all of the great projects they’ve been working on for the past year,” said Walker, 4-H youth development educator with Oklahoma State University Extension in Pontotoc County. “But it’s so much more than just exhibits. The fair also is a time for youth to volunteer, take on leadership roles such as Junior Fair Board, assist with contests, practice greeting the public, learn safe food handling and count change in concession stands. These 4-H’ers are leaning life skills at the fair, but these skills also are developed throughout the year.”

Pontotoc County 4-H’er Rose Smith has been involved with her local fair since before she became a club member.

“I remember looking forward to working in the Clover Café when I was about 6 years old. My favorite job was scooping ice out of the ice chest to put in the cherry limeades,” Smith said. “I learned so much being at the fair, from helping Ms. Becky with placing ribbons on fair exhibits, to showing my rabbit, Frank in the rabbit show.”

However, Smith said being on the Junior Fair Board taught her skills she’ll use throughout her life.

“When you hear the word ‘fair,’ you immediately think of carnival rides, but I’ve learned it takes months of planning for everything to happen,” she said. “Being at the fair has always been a happy memory for me.”

Smith’s mother, Amy, said the fair has long been a family tradition.

“Our family has happily contributed our time to the county fair. As a child, parent, certified volunteer and co-club leader, I’ve learned over the decades to prioritize time and responsibilities and have taught that to our three children,” Amy said. “ We’ve taught them the importance of keeping your word and following through with serving our community at the county fair. Even if it’s 103 degrees inside the Big Red Barn or the night after you didn’t win a crown, you still show up and work together teaching the younger generation to follow suit.”

Beck said throughout the pandemic, the Oklahoma 4-H Youth Development program continues to provide opportunities for youth.

“We’re still here and providing our programming. We’re working harder to continue finding ways to engage our youth through online learning opportunities,” he said. “Although in some cases our opportunities are a bit limited, we’re doing our best to continue building life skills in our club members.”

Beck said he understands the disappointment and frustration for our youth. Like many things in life, these club members can look back one day and know they learned valuable life lessons.

“This is a small moment in life. Take this situation as an opportunity to teach youth that things will be OK and reflect on the lessons learned. Lack of a fair isn’t taking away those learning opportunities,” he said.

While disappointing, Walker said she is encouraging her club members to look to the future.

“2020 has definitely provided us with extra challenges, but the cancellation of events this year won’t stop us,” Walker said. “We’ll be forward thinking and preparing for a brighter 2021.”

Some county fairs will continue as normal this year, while others will still go on but with modifications. For the latest update on county fairs in your area, contact the local OSU Extension office.

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