I recently survived my daughter's first real county fair livestock show, a four-day experience that felt like 12 because of the early July heat and the exhaustion that comes with doing something for the first time.
Reanna, 9, took home a blue ribbon and a red ribbon for her market sheep and a blue ribbon for junior sheep showmanship. No banners or rosettes or special awards for the wooly things, though she was the reserve champion for her sewing project. But I'm sure in time she'll see that being a winner has little to nothing to do with where you finish in the class.
When it was time to buy lambs, we made a visit to a local teenage girl rather than to a club lamb sale. Abby has, over the past few years, built an impressive flock of breeding sheep. Now 14, she pays the bills for the sheep and does the lion's share of work, though her mom's help is vital during school hours. It's something Abby has aspired to all on her own, and while I am not clamoring for my daughters to do anything similar right now, I do want them to see what hard work and diligence can build.
Abby was happy to mentor a younger 4-Her. She helped Reanna pick out a pair of lambs and explained how she had been feeding them. She even lent us a set of blades when shearing the critters proved difficult.
Once at the fair, knowing that Abby and her siblings were a few stalls down had a calming effect on Reanna, because she knew she had someone to turn to for advice.
When show day came, Abby nearly effortlessly tossed one of the lambs onto her fitting stand so that Reanna could dry him off. And while Reanna manned the blow dryer, Abby, without being asked, picked up the lamb's hooves and trimmed them. She had plenty of her own sheep to ready for the show, but she took the time to help someone else, without asking anything in return.
I remember from my own 4-H experience that sometimes livestock shows can be cliquey affairs. There often are experienced showmen who wouldn't dream of helping a newer competitor, somehow forgetting that someone, whether a parent, sibling, fellow member or other mentor, helped get them started, too.
I was happy to see there were quite a few helpers at our county fair: Older members advising younger ones on how to fit their cattle, successful showmen explaining their training routines, leaders offering help with readying animals for shows, members sharing equipment and helping each other clean up.
That's what we need more of, not just in 4-H, but in all of agriculture and, really, all of the world. If one person fails because no one will lend a hand, we all fail in one way or another. But what a glorious feeling it is to help someone else find their way.
My kids are a long way off from being able to help anyone else learn to show livestock. But I saw glimmers of the future in Reanna and her friends. When little kids came by, curious about their sheep and goats, they didn't just stand back. They welcomed the kids and their parents into their pens, answered questions and provided smiling faces to represent 4-H. They won people over who otherwise might not have had the chance to experience livestock up close.
And that's just the kind of winners I like to see.
Jenny Schlecht is Agweek's editor. She lives on a farm and ranch in Medina, N.D., with her husband and two daughters. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 701-595-0425.