STRAIGHT TALK: 4-H plays big role in fair, youth education in county

4-H participants walk their cows during the showing at the 2014 Manistee County Fair. (File photo)

4-H participants walk their cows during the showing at the 2014 Manistee County Fair. (File photo)

The Manistee County Fair is officially underway this week, and no organization plays a bigger role in the annual event than Manistee County’s 4-H program.

The News Advocate recently talked with program coordinator for both Manistee and Benzie counties, Deb Laws, about the group’s involvement in the fair and impact on the community.

MNA: In your own words, could you describe the mission of 4-H?

Laws: It’s youth programming and the audience is age 5 to 19. How are we different from Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts? The difference is we’re connected to a land-grant university (Michigan State University). We recently celebrated the 150th anniversary of that partnership. What that means is whatever we offer out there, whether it’s a clinic, an educational event or a project, it’s backed by research. Whatever we do is sanctioned by the university.

The tendency is 4-H is connected to county fairs, although not necessarily. That’s something we like to make clear to the public. But for the most part, most counties out there offer 4-H competitive and exhibition events.

MNA: What types of programs does 4-H offer to youth locally in Manistee County?

Laws: Every county is different. Very often counties are compared — 4-H programs are compared county fairs are compared — and that’s kind of the wrong road to go down because a lot has to do with population, demographic, the extension staff and priorities in that county. With that said, in this county I would say we’re still what you call traditional, meaning that we have traditional clubs led by cleared, accepted volunteer leaders and mentors, and the majority of those clubs find the county fair to the be the pinnacle of the 4-H year where they exhibit their works and their skills.

One of the things we’re most proud of is the Magoon Creek nature event that we do every spring for all the county fourth graders. At this point, it has historical importance because we’ve done it now for almost 30 years.

We also started something a few years ago where we sponsored leader dog puppies … it’s something very close to our hearts. We try to sponsor and promote people involved with companion animals. …

One of the things I have to say though is that we have a really hard-working group of volunteers. I also have to give credit to our secretary Roberta LaValley. There are things I just couldn’t do without this volunteers.

MNA: Your organization will certainly be busy this week at the Manistee County Fair. Could you describe your role in the annual event?

Laws: In the past, this office did much, much more for the fair. Because of the change (in structure and staffing in 2011), a lot went on the chopping block. What I do at this point is I oversee all the councils that play a big part in the fair. We have two overseeing councils — in Manistee it’s an advisory council and in Benzie it’s called a leaders association — and they set a lot of the policy. Those are important to mention because our fair plays host to Benzie 4-Hers too. We have a horse show committee, which is a developmental committee that takes care of all horse operations at the fair. We have a livestock council, we have a companion animal committee. … So, again, the public might notice we have all of the same activities, but the backside of it is, the extension office, 4-H staff have had to streamline and downsize a lot of what they do just because of time.

MNA: To prevent the spread of bird flu, the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) put a ban on poultry exhibits earlier this summer. How has that affected the 4-H locally and what adjustments had to be made for this week’s fair?

Laws: You have enough that goes into a fair, that you don’t need any curveballs, last-minute changes or “oh no” type of events, and this was definitely one of them. But we were very blessed and fortunate that we were one of the later fairs in the summer. So, we had plenty of time to come up with Plan A, Plan B, Plan C. We’re sticking with our Plan A, which is having the kids use some beautiful fake animals for their showmanship, and the judge has been informed and she already has a set of questions that she has custom tailored to this event. She will focus a little bit more on the avian issue.

The next step of the process is the auction, which will still go on although uniquely different. There will be a separate auction program for the poultry marketers, and it will have a little bio of each member and the most recent photo and weight (of the bird). It’s the best that we can do for the buyer. One last stipulation of this whole process is that the buyer will select the processor. They will receive a finished product. No one will ever have seen the live product this year.

Also, in lieu of a full barn of poultry, the kids that are exhibiting are required to fill those empty cages with a display. It’s going to look very different, but we still hope to see a poultry barn.

MNA: How can people get involved, support or join 4-H?

Laws: The best and quickest way is to use my email — laws@msu.edu — or the extension office phone number, which in Manistee is (231) 889-4277 and Benzie (231) 882-0025. When we can get a website up and running, there will be a place there to indicate interest too.

One thing I’d like to say, though, is the very, very best way, I still think, is for people to take the opportunity to get out to the fair. Then you really get to meet and greet, you get to see the different leaders, 4-H staff members, fair board volunteers, members, families, and you can really talk to them and find out there may be a club you’d like to join or a council that you’d like to give some time to. I still find that that’s the very best way to get involved.

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Posted by Dylan Savela

Dylan is the county reporter for the News Advocate, he also is in charge of the Small Town Life, religion and senior pages. He can be reached at (231) 398-3111 or dsavela@pioneergroup.com.

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