Jack's Insights August 2016

By Jack Whittier, Director
UNL Panhandle Extension District and Panhandle Research and Extension Center

August is county fair month all across America, and certainly here in Nebraska. The noble custom of holding an event at the county level to provide an opportunity for young and old to come together each summer has been around for a long time.  According to one source, "The first Agricultural fair in the United States was held October 1, 1810, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. It was known as the Berkshire Cattle Show."

Dr. Jack Whittier

The reference to “Berkshire Cattle” confused me at first, since I’m only familiar with a breed of hogs known as Berkshires, but not a cattle breed with this name. It turns out after a quick Google search, that Berkshire is the name of the county where Pittsfield, Mass., is located. Makes sense now. So, counties have been doing this for 206 years, it must be beneficial, and I agree that it is.

So, why county fair? 

I assert there are many reasons, not the least of which is they are fun! But let me list a few other reasons that come to mind.

County fairs provide an annual forum for communities to come together to enjoy and strengthen a community spirit, a very important component of the fabric of America. 

County fairs also offer an opportunity for young people (and those not so young) to display and evaluate their talents and projects. A quick scan of the 2016 4-H and FFA Scotts Bluff Fair schedule — a schedule similar to most every county fair — lists numerous project areas that youth use to improve skills, develop leadership, self-confidence and life skills. These range from clothing styling and construction, to shooting sports, to livestock, equine and dog shows, and more.  County fairs also include photography, food preservation, hobby displays, gardening — the list goes on.

I want to give a big shout out to the Nebraska Extension educators and 4-H Extension assistants across the state who devote weeks, days and hours to assuring that county fairs occur and accomplish what they are designed for. A big part of county fairs occurs thanks to the many volunteers and Nebraska Extension professionals who are the framework to the county fair fabric. 

As I look back to my years at the county fair, I now better understand and appreciate the dedication, planning, mentoring and patience exhibited by the adults, including parents, 4-H club leaders, County Extension personnel and others that made my youth experiences so rewarding.  I’m betting that many of you can say the same.

Nebraska Extension, like extension programs in other states, can trace its origin to the passage of the Smith-Lever Federal Act in 1914. This Act created the Cooperative Extension service, from which 4-H was born, as a partnership between land grant universities and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The principles of the act were for the involvement of local and state partners to evolve in conjunction with the federal funding.

Since joining the University of Nebraska Panhandle Extension District as director over two years ago, I have often recalled, and take pride in, the things I learned as a 4-H member during club meetings and which culminated at the county fair. A quick reminder of some of the things 4-H stands for are communicated in the 4-H slogan “Learning by Doing”; the 4-H motto “To Make the Best Better” and the 4-H pledge:

I pledge my head to clearer thinking,

my heart to greater loyalty,

my hands to larger service, and

my health to better living,

for my club, my community, my country and my world.

So, why county fair? Hopefully, my insights this month make the “why” very clear to you. I hope you are or were able to take advantage of the fun and education at the county fair near you.  Don’t pass up the chance to say “thank you” to all who work to bring these about.