For some The Christmas holidays are considered the greatest time of the year, but for 4-H members and their families, this is the greatest time of the year.  It’s fair time in Wisconsin and will be for about another month and a half.  4-H members have all their projects completed and on display at the fairs along with all the ribbons they earn from the various judges.  In many cases they are family projects as dad or grandpa has helped with the sawing of the wood for that birdhouse or mom and grandma have helped with the pattern and sewing of the clothing or reading the recipe correctly for the cooking entries. While FFA might stand for father farms alone, 4-H truly is involvement for the entire family.

     Every year we find out new things at the fairs.  We’ve been covering county, district and state fairs for the past 35 years and this year finally asked the question, “How many judges does it take to put on a county fair?”  The answer we received from the St. Croix county fair was 60 and that will vary with the size of the fair.  We also found out about some of the new classes at the fair—especially for open class exhibitors.   According to Rob Garbisch of Altoona, who judges many classes at many fairs each year, “one of the newer classes that is showing up at more and more fairs is winemaking.”  At the St. Croix county fair there were over 80 wine entries and even a few ale entries as “making more homebrew is also becoming more popular,” Garbisch added.  A lot of those wine entries came from non-traditional sources.  Garbisch told us people “make wine from just about anything, even the leaves from oak and maple trees,”   

     One thing that hasn’t changed in 35 years, though, is the social networking for the kids at the fairs.  A stroll through the barns or out near the wash racks means the kids are busy with their projects spraying each other as well as their animals.  They’re building lifelong relationships many city kids don’t build while playing video games on their computers in the rooms at home.  Those 4-Hers are also building relationships with their projects, especially with their animals.  Many times during that stroll through the barns we see young people sleeping alongside their animals in the straw bedding with that calf or cow being used as a pillow.  Those that aren’t sleeping with their animals are clustered around their show boxes having lunch together, telling jokes, playing cards or just sharing stories as they do their barn chores.  Those barn chores mean sweeping the aisles to try and win the barn award or being ever at the ready with a pitch fork and wheel barrow when an animal decides to try and mess up their bedding. Many 4-H parents only wish that same kid would pay half as much attention when it comes to cleaning their room at home.  The bottom line is that 4-Hers learn how to interact with others and complete those projects.

      Like everything else in our modern society the county and district fairs face challenges, though.  The biggest ones are financial.  The state has seen a steady decrease in the amount of money that is doled out to the over 70 fairs in the state for premiums.  The current level of cost sharing is down to between 300 and 400 thousand dollars.  That money is shared by the fairs based on the amount of entries at each fair.  According to Wisconsin Agriculture Secretary, Ben Brancel, that amount might go even lower.  At a recent fair Brancel told us the new budget includes a provision that requires all state agencies, including DATCP, to “lapse money out of their budgets back to the general fund.”  Currently he and other agency heads are waiting for the Department of Administration to assign that dollar amount for each agency so at this point he has no idea how much money he will have to give back. He knows it can’t come from segregated funds but it can come from program revenue funds and general purpose revenue which is tax based support funding for his department.  Brancel told us the lapse feature of the budget was a last minute provision that he and most other agency heads were not aware of until recently.  He added that the limited tem employee position that is housed and works out of the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection offices in Madison will not go away but reductions in fair premium moneys from the state could suffer. 

     Brancel is not comfortable with the possibility of cutting fair moneys even more but in the end, may have no choice.