The Fair Might Be Canceled But 4-H Is Not Canceled

Heidi Donnelly

As with everything else around us, the Gallatin County 4-H program looks different this year because of the pandemic. However, JaNaie’ Godin, the Gallatin County 4-H Agent, and program leaders and volunteers have been working to make sure that 4-H members are still getting as many opportunities as possible from the programs available to them.

Under normal circumstances, clubs and projects meet in person regularly and move forward on projects and participate in activities. The culmination of the 4-H year happens at the Big Sky Country State Fair. This year, with social distancing orders and the fair being CANCELED, how do 4-H members meet the criteria and goals of the huge number of various programs in an environment of strict social distancing orders? They do it just like most of us. Educators had to pivot to various online platforms and systems of sending work home to students, many businesses modified their structure to include virtual meetings, telework, take out and even converting their product lines, and employees figured out how to effectively work remotely while taking care of various personal and family matters due to restrictions, school closures and other unforeseen circumstances.

Gallatin County youth and their leaders did the pivot also and delivered 4-H virtually to hundreds of members in Gallatin County. And it worked. Gallatin 4-H was not CANCELED, and the cumulation of those efforts are still planned for the same week as the fair was scheduled. Members with both indoor and animal projects can enter the competition and have their efforts judged against the efforts of their fellow members. That much is the same.

As in the past, before members can be a part of the fair competition, they need to complete their record books and also participate in an interview. These have been held on site, but this year they will be all virtual. Judges will be all in one spot with a laptop and headphones. One of the major changes that will come out of this is the way they nominate members for record book awards. Normally members are nominated by their interviewing judges, but since they are going virtual, they won’t have the members’ record books in front of them. To compensate for that, project leaders who are already required to sign record books can also nominate members for this award. Godin believes this will be a practice that stays around because it is ultimately the leaders who know the members and know how far they have come in their projects.

Due to restrictions, the public currently cannot be invited to come to the exhibition. For projects that don’t depend on the public, like cake decorating, photography, and the horse or dairy goat projects, this is not a big deal. However, many members have animals they are hoping to show and then sell at the annual 4-H market sale. Beef, swine, sheep, goats, turkeys, rabbits and chickens are raised and trained and shown and then sold to a crowd of locals made up of business owners and individuals, many of whom have made it an annual event they attend and support.

Some 4-H families who normally participate in market projects chose not to get animals to sell this year. Many others questioned whether it was a good idea. They didn’t know how the year would look and didn’t want to be stuck with 5 pigs or 2 steers. Other families would have chosen to not participate had the timing been a little later, since everything started changing just as many of the deadlines to acquire market animals were looming. Another reason was that they didn’t feel it was right to ask businesses and individuals for support (money) when there are already so many financial unknowns. In spite of this, the biggest market project, the swine project, still has over 200 animals, and the number of market animals entered is still around 300.

According to Godin, from the beginning, there was always a plan to move forward with a market sale, even if there was no market show and the sale was all virtual. Currently, the market sale plan looks very similar to what it has been in the past, but with the addition of an online option. The auction will be held Friday, July 17 beginning at 5 pm in the same location. Potential bidders can participate in person or virtually this year. To reduce crowding and encourage social distancing, the capacity will be limited to less than recommended, and there will be a tent with a closed-circuit live feed of the auction for the in-person option. And instead of the traditional buyer barbeque, buyers will receive food vouchers that are good for the whole evening. Potential buyers can get the information here when it is available:

According to Godin, the Extension Office has been getting a higher number of calls asking about where to get local meat. They are compiling a list of those interested and will be sending them buyer information when it is available so they can participate in the auction, even if it is from their home.

Non-market projects are also feeling the financial pressure. The Gallatin Twisters 4-H horse drill team made the decision not to enter the Montana State Drill Team Association’s annual competition that is being held in Kalispell in August. Last year, they competed there for the first time and placed 3rd in the state. In its place, they will be participating in the Gem State Virtual drill competition. The cost of the virtual competition is a small fraction of what it would be to enter and then travel with the 16 team members, their families, and their horses to Kalispell. Since they missed many of their spring practices, they will be having a drill camp at WB Ranch Co. in Belgrade to prepare for the competition.

There is also an effort underway to create a public website that will have a photo of every entry with the ribbon it earned. Since the public can’t come see every entry in person, this will allow them to see every entry virtually. It is a huge undertaking, and Godin is enlisting the help of every 4-H or non-4-H volunteer willing to help and every employee in the Extension office, even if 4-H is not their job. If you are interested in helping with this or any other aspect of 4-H and the exhibition, including judging project entries, interviewing members, or participating as a buyer at the market sale, call the extension office at 406-582-3280.

This event is the highlight of the year for many young members of our county and their families. They need your support more than ever this year, even if it doesn’t look like it has in the past.   

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