Madilyn McKenzie feeds Bubbles and Crush, 4-H goats raised with her sister, Hailey, on Wednesday, May 27, outside of Jefferson, at the farm of a family friend where they house their animals. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

First went the high school proms.

Then the graduation ceremonies.

And now, local youth involved in 4-H and FFA are watching their summer competitions disappear as well.

In early May, the Marion County Fair and Oregon State Fair announced cancellations in response to COVID-19 restrictions ordered by Gov. Kate Brown.

Leaders of 4-H and FFA are scrambling to salvage some elements of the county fair through a virtual program.

“In a nutshell, the Marion County fair is the quintessential county fair. It has a big focus on youth and supporting the youth,” according to Jill Ingalls, Marion County Fair event coordinator.

There are approximately 650 4-H members in Marion County and about 120 FFA participants in county fair.

The county fair is held at the state fairgrounds in Salem and would have run July 9 to 12 this year. Ingalls said the fair board had picked a “cliff date” that would be the last day until a critical mass of bills would come due for this year’s acts, promotional signage and vendor contracts.

The fair has an annual budget of approximately $340,000.

“We decided that the cliff date for us would be May 30 to still be able to produce a valuable fair without losing too much money,” Ingalls said. 

But, considering how the pandemic data was trending, the implication of a doomed fair was already clear by early May and the decision to cancel the Marion County Fair was made the day before Brown’s announcement that prompted the cancellation of this year’s Oregon State Fair.

“Looking at the governor’s phasing-in plans, which were shared with us in draft form, it was enough for us to say, ‘Ok - no,’” Ingalls said.

Word of the cancellation jolted youth already working for months to groom and train animals for judging at the fairs.

“Everyone’s going to remember the class of 2020,” said Nathan Kuenzi, a senior at Silverton High School. “And we’re always going to be remembered because we got robbed of prom and graduation. I can get over that stuff. It is what it is. But losing fair, that’s what really stinks.” 

Nathan Kuenzi shows his pig during 2019 Marion County Fair. He has five pigs he raised for this year's fair - now canceled. (Family photo)

He looks back on his years of showing pigs at the county and state fairs and how he got started as a first-grader, inspired by his older brother.

As he got older, he began participating in both 4-H and FFA. If a fair participant has one market animal in 4-H and another in FFA, he’s allowed to enter showmanship classes in both.

Naturally competitive, Kuenzi tries to get into as many classes as he can, which means he usually has one market animal in 4-H and one breeding animal in FFA.

 “I like it because I feel like if you end up doing pretty well, it kinda makes you feel good. Like you worked pretty hard to get your animal dialed in - and yourself dialed in. All the work pays off,” Kuenzi said. “It's my favorite thing from my childhood.”

 A 4-H pig project is a year-round commitment that instills a hardy work ethic.

The competition season starts with buying pigs in early spring. It’s a process that involves looking at pigs, researching their genetics, making the purchase and then bringing them home to feed. The first weigh-in is traditionally in early May and is a test to see if the pig is too heavy, too light - or just right.

Then, the pigs get ear tags for the county fair, which also makes them eligible for some other shows.

 “They’re already five to eight shows deep by fair time, so they’re trained pretty decently,” Kuenzi said. “The pigs are learning and we’re learning in these practice runs. Then by fair time, we’re feeling pretty good with the way they act.” 

 Judges evaluate the competitor’s preparation for the show, the animals’ apparent training, and the appearance and behavior of the showman.

“Because this was going to be my last fair, I had bought five animals instead of two this year. I wanted to go out with a bang and work harder than I ever have before,” Kuenzi said. “It’s hard because you work all year for it and then you can’t show.”

The night the Marion County fair board made its decision there was no debate, only a string of hope. The group considered ways to allow the fair to stay on the calendar because deciding to cancel.

“We said, ‘Fair planning for 2121 starts tomorrow - look how much time we have now,’” Ingalls said. “We’re going to tweak things and adjust to make 2121 amazing. Next year’s theme might be: The comeback kids!”

In the meantime, Marion County 4-H and FFA clubs are working with the fair board to move some elements of this year’s fair online.

“We’re calling it Marion County Youth Fair and it will have a full set of virtual activities,” said Melanie McCabe, Marion County 4-H coordinator. 

McCabe is working with 4-H clubs and the county fair coordinators to create a virtual space for everything from breeding animal and market livestock classes to home economics and arts classes. 4-H and FFA participants would interact with judges online using photographs and videos. The 4-H horse projects are pending a decision to hold a live event in September when social distancing may be less restrictive.

A virtual fair won’t end Nathan Kuenzi’s fair career with quite the bang he’d hoped for, but at least it will give him some financial relief. He invested about $5,000 in his pigs this year, and expects to suffer a huge loss, even if he gets to sell his pigs through an online auction.

 “I stand to lose about $3,000. It’s not going to be too pretty. That’s just the way it is,” Kuenzi said. 

Ingalls said a virtual auction will help kids sell their livestock and recoup their investments while still allowing the public to buy meat locally and directly.

“People said they wanted to buy a kids’ animal to help.” Ingalls said. “It’s a new creative way that ties into the meat shortage - people are saying, ‘Let’s buy a pork animal.’ It’s about connecting growers with the public who used to provide products to restaurants.” 

The auction is separate from the fair itself, although it takes place during the fair week on the fairgrounds. Saturday night is typically the sale, and at midnight a butcher company arrives with big trailers to load up the animals.

“Saturday night, you gotta say good-bye. You’ll never see me again,” Kuenzi said. “It kinda sucks in the end. I almost cried in the end. I’m kind of a tough guy - can’t be crying, but it builds character. That’s what 4-H and FFA does.”

For 15-year-old Hailey McKenzie of Jefferson, Plan B for a virtual fair and auction seems like a viable solution for her Heart of the Valley 4-H Club, in which she and her 12-year-old sister Madilyn are involved in sheep and goat projects.

“It really does seem like a good temporary fix because we really can’t do anything with social distancing,” McKenzie said. “This is an opportunity for kids to have the auction, which is the only time they can sell their animals. It’s amazing. I’m going to do it.”

McKenzie describes what she envisions the virtual auction will be like.

“I imagine we’ll be having a family night, and we’ll invite cousins, my aunt and uncle and we’ll all watch my and my sister’s animals online,” she said. “We’ll be eating hamburgers and hot dogs because it’s barbecue season - and it will be exciting to see how much we sell for, how well [our animals] do.”  

She said if the online auction goes well this year, she can see it being used again next year for folks who can’t attend in person.

“It’s a good test of things to add on,’ McKenzie said. 

Ingalls said that the virtual events can’t replace the social experience for kids. However, she believes the loss of fairs this year could revive public interest in ways that could benefit fairs in the future.

“A lot of fairs were going downhill,” Ingalls said. 

 She described a past when all the businesses in towns would close up and the people went to the fair.

“But times have changed. So how can we grow that again? And the answer is through competitions,” Ingalls said. “Encouraging the public to enter the fair again with quilts, pies and adding things like a Pinterest page. You can make for the fair.”

Last year Marion County saw an increase in competitions because of more communication and engagement. Ingalls hopes virtual competitions that may be coming this year would provide a new platform for even more participation in fairs to come. 

 “I hope people will look in the rearview mirror and say that things are going to change,” she said.

Kuenzi feel optimistic too.

“If fair kids can get over this and look on the bright side to show next year, it’s going to teach everyone we’re all in the same boat,” he said.

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