Stacy Estrada showed Linda, her 5-month-old wether dam lamb. photo by Bill Bartlett
Stacy Estrada showed Linda, her 5-month-old wether dam lamb. photo by Bill Bartlett
The Deschutes County Fair ended Sunday. Maybe you were there. It was a good turnout, especially after a year’s absence due to COVID-19. It looked as it has in the past, nothing new particularly, just the tried-and-proven stew of Americana. Expectations were low, but fans, hungry for the normalcy the Fair represents, were energetic, bordering on ecstatic, as the familiar setting swept them into a world of adventure and wonder.

It reminded me of that old Neil Diamond song “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show.” You know the one: “Pack up the babies/And grab the old ladies/And everyone goes…”

County fairs for me are all about people-watching and trying to guess people’s stories through the viewfinder. I usually take 300 pictures and make a photo book or slide show to haul out whenever I need a dose of real life. My camera always leads me to the 4-H exhibition. After the carnival rides this is the most photogenic part of any fair. Kids and animals, right?

Because I was born and raised in cities, big ones, 4-H and FFA were only things I read about and admired from afar. This year, though, I was going to change that. What is the magic sauce, the smell of the greasepaint, the roar of the crowd that is 4-H? It’s surely not the animal odors from hot barns, smells I imagine 4-H kids don’t even notice.

My guide this day was Pam Mitchell, who leads the Cloverdale Livestock Club. She has been part of 4-H for 36 years, from fourth through 12th grade as a contestant, and the last 27 as a mentor. To say 4-H is in her veins would be a gross understatement.

“You stick your ribbons in a drawer or misplace them somewhere never to see them again, but the lifelong friendships made in 4-H, the life lessons learned, those are what 4-H is all about,” she said.

There are 30 kids in the Cloverdale Livestock Club from Sisters, Bend, Tumalo, Alfalfa and in and around Sisters Country. Mitchell’s dad was in the club so the club is at least 75 years old, she reckons. That’s typical of clubs nationally. The organization began in 1902 and boasts 6.5 million members worldwide and 25 million alums. The 4-Hs, taken from the original motto, are: head, heart, hands, and health.

I always thought of it as an agriculturally focused organization as a result of its history. Today though, 4-H focuses on citizenship, healthy living, and STEM programs in addition to animal science and husbandry. Clubs in today’s 4-H world provide a wide range of options, each allowing for personal growth and career success. The current 4-H motto is “To make the best better,” while its slogan says “Learn by doing.”

Kids in 4-H, the largest out-of-school youth program in the United States, can also develop skills in engine repair, cooking, gardening, farming, and ranching. Things one does with their hands in a world that increasingly de-emphasizes manual labor.

4-H in Oregon is administered by OSU Extension Service. Mitchell is supported by three to four dedicated colleagues and a corps of engaged, committed parents. It’s just a different version of soccer mom and dad, it seemed to me. Only with animals, some big ones, and feed bills and vet bills.

If you’re feeling a little depressed by world events and the panic porn spewing nonstop from cable TV, you could do one of two things, or both: Turn off the TV and spend time with a 4-H kid. I had just such the pleasure, starting with Stacy Estrada. She’s been in the Cloverdale Livestock Club for six years and will age out soon. Estrada raised and was showing Linda, her five-month-old wether dam lamb.

Ms. Estrada, 18, has already earned her associate’s degree from COCC. Like all the 4-H “kids” I met, she greets you with a firm handshake and looks you in the eye. She can speak lengthy paragraphs without once using the word “like.” She lives on a five-acre farm with sheep, goats, chickens, horses, and dogs. She has a deep bond and respect for them all.

Behind her were a blue and red ribbon, but she never mentioned them. She wanted to talk about her life in 4-H, the passion she has for it. She is quick to give special thanks to Karen Moss and her husband, Gary, owners of Secure Storage, who inspired Estrada to join 4-H.

Tanner Pease was showing his Hampshire pig, Nolan, a sow. His mom is a stylist at Metamorphosis in Sisters. His was the only swine entry from the Cloverdale group, which also had a single goat entry but numerous beef and sheep contestants.

Colter Habein took top honors for market beef, and also earned an award for showmanship. From Tumalo, he too has been part of the Cloverdale group for six years. His pursuits take him on the road, where he recently competed in the Junior Nationals in Nebraska and shows in California.

Habein is hoping to go to Texas A&M via the community college route in order to pursue a career as a cattleman.

Jordan Ortiz, a fellow Cloverdale member, has a wall full of awards including grand champion two years ago in the cattle-breeding section. He was emblematic of all the 4-H young people I met: cordial, focused, accessible, and eager to share his experiences.

Parents get them to the fairgrounds. Once there, the kids take over and immediately form helping alliances encouraging and sharing tips with their fellow competitors. They are keen observers and attentive listeners to the judges. These kids were neither sullen nor sarcastic, characterizations of their age. It was all business.

Sunday, it’s auction day. You get the picture. That steer or lamb or pig that you raised and groomed and sweated over from birth will dramatically exit your life, entering “production.” That seemed a hard thing to contemplate for somebody maybe only 10 or 12. Mitchell assured me that part of 4-H was the deep understanding of the agricultural circle of life.

These kids showed wisdom beyond their years, giving me hope that a better world is possible.