PORTLAND - Ken Miller loves county fairs. A couple of years ago, he and his wife, Vicki, decided to visit every county fair in Oregon. As they zigzagged across the state, they logged 7,730 miles and developed a fondness for kettle corn and kids with animals.
Amid tractor pulls, carnival rides and county music, the Millers caught the scent of hay and cows. Like everyone else who visits a state or county fair, the Millers were drawn to the animal barns, where they found kids cleaning stalls, trimming sheep and shampooing cows under the clover-shaped banners of 4-H.
"We didn't know much about 4-H when we started," said Miller, a Portland web site designer, "but in county after county we started to get a feeling about its significance and the importance of county fairs to these kids and their communities."
4-H is a statewide youth development program organized by the Oregon State University Extension Service. The national program began 100 years ago to enhance the education of boys and girls in the rural Midwest. It grew to include kids in all communities doing all kinds of projects. In Oregon, there are 4-H computer clubs, Web Wizards, Wildlife Stewards, even a performing arts club in Multnomah County.
But for people like the Millers strolling through the county fair, their first introduction to 4-H may be kids with animals.
The Millers met Johannah Withrow-Robinson at the Benton County Fair in Corvallis when she was showing her angora rabbit, an explosion of white fur named Misty. This year, Johannah showed rabbits and goats, as well as handspun yarn and felted wool she had made from her animals' fleeces.
"When I first started 4-H, I knew I wanted to be a participant, not just a spectator," said Withrow-Robinson, who joined 4-H when she was 10. Now 16, Withrow-Robinson is a teen leader in her club, helping to plan meetings and teach younger members.
"Most people who see animal projects at the fair don't realize how much work goes into them. You work for a whole year just for this one week," said Withrow-Robinson.
"Fair takes on a whole new perspective to kids who are active 4-H participants, beyond the blue ribbons and other accolades they receive," said Liz Fox, a 4-H leader in Lincoln County. "As their leader, I see it provides them with a sense of accomplishment and meaningful responsibility-but more importantly, it provides a community connection they so seldom experience otherwise."
Fox has worked with youth groups in Lincoln County for many years.
"What is so unique to me about the county fair experience is that it's not just a one day thing - it is lengthy, involved and intense," said Fox. "Even one-time participation at fair can be life-altering for some kids."
Ken Miller would agree. He found more than he expected on his tour of county fairs.
"I found young people, from nine to 19, across the state with a sense of purpose, involved with animals from birth to death, and connected to their communities," he said.
Seventeen-year-old Calder Foss serves on the 4-H program advisory board in Deschutes County in central Oregon, and has been active raising beef cattle for five years. He speaks easily about his work in the community as well as his individual 4-H projects.
"You purchase market steers in October and have to maintain them through the winter," he explained. "We begin weigh-ins in February, in order to reach an ideal weight of around 1,300 pounds by fair time."
Between weigh-ins and the fair, Foss takes his cows to neighboring ranches to work with them, so his animals will be accustomed to new surroundings when they arrive at the fair. At the fair, he spends lots of time helping his animals settle in.
"The first day of fair is all about trying to please the animals, getting them relaxed and comfortable," he said.
In some years, Foss has entered as many as five cows at the Deschutes County Fair. Part of the reward comes at the auction, where community businesses and individuals bid on the animals in a show of support for the kids and their projects.
"This year, the auctioneers worked really hard for us, and kept the price for steers above $2 a pound," said Foss. "That's awesome."
The Millers, too, were impressed by the support shown for the 4-H members by local people and businesses bidding on market animals at the auction.
"For kids with market animals, the 4-H auction is the culmination of their project," explained Miller, who by summer's end had learned quite a bit about 4-H. "The kids have to care for their animal and get it ready for market. Then they go to potential buyers in the area to get commitments to bid on their animal. This experience teaches kids personal discipline, responsibility, respect and social skills.
"And while they're at it, these kids are also earning enough money at the 4-H market auction to pay for college."
Foss admits that his plans are still in flux as he looks forward to his upcoming senior year in high school. "Right now, I'd like to go to OSU and get a degree in business," he said. "That's my plan this week!"
Many of this year's most successful 4-H members will exhibit their animals and other 4-H projects at the Oregon State Fair, which runs in Salem from Aug. 22 through Sept. 2. According to Jim Rutledge, State 4-H Leader at OSU, the 4-H division will have more than 8,000 exhibits as part of this year's centennial celebration.
"Only about a quarter of these exhibits are animal projects," said Rutledge. "Over the last 100 years, 4-H has evolved to include a variety of program areas in addition to animals that make it possible for children and families to participate, regardless of where they live or their economic status. The projects include nutrition, photography, clothing, crafts, and a focus on citizenship, community service, and leadership development."
"I sure recommend to people to go to the fair," said Ken Miller. "Talk with the 4-H members. Spend a few hours. Ask them what they are going to do with their lives. Just go do it."
Miller has collected highlights from his trip to all the county fairs in Oregon on his web site, at http://www.pdx1.com/2000summary.html. With links to all 36 counties, it is a portrait of Oregon communities, kids and animals.