Emily Damro and Greg Walston with Benton County Extension knew changes were coming as early as mid-March. COVID-19 was making headlines across the country and major sporting events were beginning to be cancelled. This was going to look different.
“We started meeting more regularly with our 4-H committee, made up of volunteers who guide our local programs and plan events such as our awards banquet and fair. That includes a fair board representative on that committee as well.”
The committee and Extension office went through options as the state closed down school for what eventually would be the rest of the school year. A final discussion in early May led to the conclusion the fair, scheduled for June 23-28, would not be safe in its usual practice given social distancing guidelines from the state.
“We had the fair board make the big decision,” Walston said. “They were getting input from their association that there would be a lot of risk involved. Insurance would not cover these risks.”
But the board and committee were supportive of the idea of having shows continue without the public in attendance. Benton County Extension with the help of committee officers were put in charge of planning and organizing exhibits for local 4-H and FFA members.
“It became pretty obvious at that time too even without a traditional fair that we needed to back our timeline up a bit,” Walston said. “The general consensus was if we delayed these shows a couple of weeks, we would feel more secure about having audiences of family members at these shows. The governor continued to loosen restrictions. We also needed to pick a date to give exhibitors a chance to see if their livestock would be ready.”
The modified fair shows took place from July 15 through July 21. Families filled out forms informing the staff how many family members would be joining them on the fairgrounds. The Extension staff worked closely with Benton County Public Health to develop a health and safety plan for the exhibits, which included signs encouraging social distancing, masks and frequent hand washing. To Damro’s delight, these practices were all well-received by 4-H/FFA members and their families over the course of the week.
“We wanted to know how many people were coming into the fairgrounds each day and keep track in case a situation did arise,” Damro said. “We wanted to do our due diligence to keep everyone safe and leaned right into what public health told us to do. I was surprised by the lack of challenges and how everyone filled out their forms before arriving. When they arrived and set up, nothing really felt that different. There was still a fair feeling to everything.”
Shelby McDonald, the 2019 Benton County Fair Queen, traded in her tiara and sash for work clothes as she presented awards to exhibitors not as the reigning queen, but as a summer intern for Benton County Extension. With the Iowa State Fair canceled, the Queen Contest was also postponed to next year and McDonald’s duties continued.
“I had people asking ‘where’s the crown and sash’, but with us not having a contest or other members of the court there, it was the right thing to do by not showing mine,” McDonald said. “Honestly, it was just nice to be a part of these shows and being able to see everyone.”
McDonald, a 2019 graduate of Vinton-Shellsburg and former member of the Canton Upstreamers 4-H club, is currently attending Hawkeye Community College for Ag Business and joined the staff for the summer for the internship. What she did not know was her tenure would be completely different than past years.
“We have interns every year write a book on what they’ve learned and how to do things to leave for next year’s intern,” Walston said. “But as far as I’m concerned, a lot of it she could have just pitched in the garbage because this year was so different. She was up for a challenge and didn’t miss a beat for us.”
While some judges originally scheduled to work the fair were unable to attend due to being out of state, the Extension office was able to find locals to judge this season. Participation numbers were down significantly in all but this year’s swine show, yet this allowed for more one-on-one attention between judges and exhibitors.
“It was like a classroom going from 25 kids down to 10 kids,” Walston said. “I saw a lot more questions asked. It’s really about the learning. A judge stopped longer to explain what he was saying and the kids were very engaged.”
Damro found “great comfort” that exhibitors and their families remained involved this year and did not quit on the shows for the simple fact they were different this year.
“My favorite part was working with the families to really put something unique into motion,” Damro said. “I enjoyed moving away from the spreadsheets and planning to see it all be put together this past week. People involved in 4-H are truly one of a kind.”
As an exhibitor for nine years and resident of Benton County, McDonald enjoyed the chance to reconnect with families she had not seen recently due to COVID-19 and having the chance to interact with them.
“I’m used to seeing certain families at certain shows each year,” McDonald said. “At the beginning of the summer, I wondered if I’d have that chance. Having the chance to show this year was special, even if it wasn’t quite what they were used to.”
Damro and Walston stated they hope to apply lessons learned from this year going forward, whether the fair returns to normal in 2021 or continues to focus on 4-H and FFA exhibits rather than a traditional fair.
“We’ve grown so much as a team over this summer,” Damro said. “We’re excited to see where next year takes us and hope this year be a foundation for a great fair in 2021.”