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Our Illinois 4-H Story

Here comes the judge, as all is "fair" in love and 4-H

A giant blue ribbon.

The final school bell rings and sixth grade is over! Colton bolts for the door and into the warm, bright sunshine of summer. He feels a sense of freedom and knows in the very distant future he’s headed to Junior High, but now there are now camps, baseball, a vacation, and a 4-H fair first. His teacher watches him sprint across the school yard and she lets out a long-deserved sigh of relief herself.

The county 4-H fair. With the huge variety of projects offered through Illinois 4-H, the fair means something different to everyone, but there is a common denominator: whatever happens at the 4-H fair, it will be remembered like it was frozen in time. Like the time your high school football team finally beat your long-term rival on a last second Hail Mary pass. The brief comments from your project judge at the 4-H general show will be replayed in Colton’s mind over and over leaving a lasting impact. No matter if the resulting ribbon is white, red, or blue he will remember that much longer than he will remember what his final grade was in sixth grade English.

The lasting impact of 4-H has been academically measured by many, and 4-H fairs have been a part of this equation for over 100 years. In totality, the 4-H fair is a social event where one’s chosen project/s are shown to communicate the skill, talent, mastery, and knowledge learned on a subject in a public display. Colton knows this project display comes with his acceptance of some personal vulnerability. He’s learned through his parents and his 4-H Club leader that this vulnerability is counter-balanced with a heighted inner confidence in himself. After all, a fair is a competition and not everyone wins in a competition. But it’s the preparation, the anticipation, and the challenge to do his best that makes his project displays worth the risk of this “fair vulnerability”.

A random data search of 10 Illinois county 4-H fairs show that approximately 75% of 4-H members bring at least one project to a county fair. An average of 179 4-H youth show at a county fair and each 4-H youth that does show displays 5 projects! That’s correct, 941 projects on average are shown at a county 4-H fair. Fifteen percent of these 4-H’ers who show at the county level then move on to the Illinois State Fair with one of their projects – in 2023, over 3,300 projects were in this elite group.

So ... here comes the judge. Judges, choose your words with grace and wisdom knowing they will stick. Thank you 4-H club leaders, your work matters. 4-H families, please focus on the whole fair experience and not the color of the ribbon as all is fair in love and 4-H.