It’s no wonder Karen Scovill calls the 127-acre Shiawassee County Fair the “new fairgrounds,” even though the fair’s been held there for 26 years. She has attended the county fair virtually longer than she’s been alive.
Her parents, then beef and dairy cattle show participants, actually met at the county fair. Decades later, in 1991, Scovill met her future husband there, too. Her three younger brothers all showed animals, and her two sons, junior high and high school FFA members, show sheep, hogs and steers today.
“I’m fourth generation on our family farm. When I look out my kitchen window, I see my sheep where they have been since I started 4-H,” Scovill says. “We really wouldn’t know what else to do that first week of August when the county fair is on, because that has been our life since I was little.”
Scovill credits the communication, interpersonal and financial skills she relies on as an adult today to her youth fair participation. She’s not afraid of public speaking. She’s able to work under pressure. She’s confident, poised and grateful.
That’s exactly why the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development partners with the Michigan Association of Fairs and Exhibitions across 86 county and local fairs each year. They promote these very skills in youth, while simultaneously cultivating a lifelong interest and awareness of agriculture.
“Fairs are the original agritourism, an opportunity for people to interact with those in agriculture, to educate consumers and see where their food comes from,” says Lisa Reiff, executive director of the Michigan Association of Fairs and Exhibitions .
Reiff went to her first fair when she was just three days old, and her family is now in its fourth generation showing at fairs.
“From the youth education standpoint, they learn so many lessons, whether that’s responsibility, time management, investing back in their projects, selling their projects, budgeting, the value of community and volunteering; all of those different things,” she says.
Michigan county and local fairs – most of which are independent agricultural societies that may or may not receive county or municipal money – attracted a whopping 4.5 million attendees in 2013, with 48,864 youth exhibitors and livestock sales of $16,456,107.
Besides boosting local economies, kids put that money to good use. Scovill’s boys put funds away for school, and Williamson Community College freshman Alexandria Schut – Michigan FFA Association state president – is putting herself through college with the money she makes showing her own sheep flock. “I really enjoy working with animals, training, having that success and that feeling in the ring knowing you gave it your all. That has really driven me for the upcoming years because I know what I want to do,” says Schut, who plans to eventually double major in animal science and agricultural law. “You learn how to compete against your friends. I’ve also made so many connections for future careers and opportunities, whether it’s people I buy lambs from or livestock judging coaches.”
Like Scovill, Schut says youth fair participation is truly a family affair, and that’s probably its greatest reward. Multiple generations across her entire family participate every year, and she can’t wait to show the ropes to her 3-year-old sister.
“I will definitely enjoy getting to help her. It has really tied our family together, and that’s important to me,” says Schut. “This is something you work hard for, but ultimately, you also relax and just be with your family, and I was raised that family is the most important thing.”