4-H members adapted to summer of change for fairs, exhibitions

Judy Mae Bingman University of Illinois Extension

Members of the Clark, Crawford and Edgar counties designed this t-shirt to mark this year. The 2020 virtual state show included 2,270 exhibits, down from 3,013 entrees in 2019. (Courtesy of Illinois 4-H)

In May, Jenna Wheeler and her family had a big decision to make. With a barn full of show pigs and goats bound for the summer showing, and a cascade of cancellations due to coronavirus pandemic, what should the family do?

Raising livestock is expensive, but some of those expenses are offset by prize money and the sale of livestock after the show season. With the immediate future in doubt, the teen told her story on social media.

“My dad looked at me, with tears in his eyes, and said, ‘I’ll feed these pigs for as long as I need if it means I get to go to the barn and do chores every night with my kids.’”

This same discussion played out in barns across the state as the lingering effects of the health crisis wore on. Though many expressed disappointment when 4-H shows transitioned to an online format, Jenna Wheeler took the long view.  “One day,” Jenna wrote, “you’re going to age out and close your show box for the last time; I promise you, it’s not the banners or shows you’ll miss. It’s doing chores with your dad.”

University of Illinois Extension 4-H animal science specialist Dan Jennings praised the members, families, volunteers, and staff who pulled together in response to the pandemic. “Our 4-H members with livestock projects didn’t seem to miss a beat when engaging in opportunities to exhibit online,” Jennings says. “While it was not our preferred way of doing things, 4-H members responded well and adapted quickly in a positive manner.”

Illinois 4-H includes nearly 24,000 youth whose club membership provides for an exhibition of the skills learned throughout the year in project topics of their choosing. Project enrollment exceeds 275,000.

Exhibitions are held locally in each Illinois county, and the best exhibits advance to state competition. The pandemic forced all 4-H exhibitions to an online format, including the 4-H state project show normally held during the Illinois State Fair.

The 2020 virtual state show included 2,270 exhibits, down from 3,013 entrees in 2019. Seventy volunteer judges found creative ways to evaluate projects they could no longer touch or taste.

“While I missed discussing the projects with the 4-Hers in person, especially asking them about specific choices, I was truly impressed with the quality of the work they had done,” said second-year judge Patti Welander. “Because of their project reports, we were able to have a virtual dialogue, and most showed true insights into what they had learned and what they could improve. While I hope to be back in-person next year, the quality of the work shows that our 4-H members rose to the occasion of a virtual fair.”

For Illinois 4-H, shows were only one aspect of a year of disrupted routines. “We have been so inspired by the resilience of our 4-H youth and the support of our 4-H families and volunteers during this challenging time,” says Lisa Diaz, Illinois Extension assistant dean and director of Illinois 4-H.  “I am proud of the adaptability and perseverance demonstrated in Illinois 4-H that allowed us to continue our summer competitions and events online.”

Many 4-H participants looked for the positive. Members in Clark, Crawford, and Edgar counties received a commemorative shirt for participating in the virtual fair. The front reads: “Our Head, Heart, and Hands are still there and our Health is safe!”

For members in Champaign, Ford, Iroquois, and Vermilion counties, their shirt read: “I can do Virtually Anything in 4-H.” In southwest Illinois, youth in the virtual science camp in Madison, Monroe and St. Clair counties received a shirt with a mask and the text: “Making the Best Better, Quarantine Style.”

Across the state, 4-H members cared for community gardens, made masks and face shields, provided backpack meals for youth and seniors, and visited with nursing home residents from outside closed windows.

With the closing of many recreational facilities, outdoor activities increased.  Illinois 4-H responded with a sportsman skills challenge and a virtual fishing contest. “What better way to have some family bonding time than getting outdoors exploring and learning survival skills,” says April Littig, Extension 4-H youth educator.

4-H teaches life skills, and adapting to unexpected changes has been a part of everyone’s life, this year, Diaz says.

“We hope the young people see this as part of their life’s journey.”

Judy Mae Bingman, University of Illinois Extension communications and marketing manager