The Geary County Free Fair took place July 19-23 at the Geary County 4-H Building with several modifications due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Entries were limited to the members of the county’s five 4-H Clubs — Blue Line, Brookside, Clarks Creek, Humboldt and Lyon Creek.

“The whole purpose of the fair is to give the 4-H’ers an opportunity to show the projects they had been working on for the past eight, nine, 10 months,” said K-State Extension Office Ag and Natural Resources agent Chuck Otte. “You don’t have to take your project to the fair, but a lot of 4-H’ers really want to show what they have learned. Traditionally, it’s a chance for the public to come out, see them and appreciate what they’ve done. Of course this year with COVID-19 we’ve had to just scramble that all around completely upsetting the format.”

The decision of the Geary County Fair Board was to hold off on outside participants that normally display their crops, needlework and other crafts and steer the attention back to the core — the development of the youth in the county.

“With what’s been set forth in front of us with this whole COVID-19 situation, I feel like we did the best we could,” said Luke Erichsen, Geary County Fair Board president. “You know, we still give the children an opportunity to show, and which is ultimately what it’s for — it’s for the kids.”

The 4-H members were able to showcase their creative works before judges in a conference format with the judge on one end of a table and the child with a parent on a different side. Tables were spaced around the inside the building to allow for proper social distancing as participants were assigned a time slot to report to the judge.

“That lets them talk to the judge,” said 4-H and Youth Development agent Ginger Kopfer. “So, if they have questions the judge can tell them what they did well, how they can improve. But, they can also say like, ‘I was baking my cookies and they turned out this way like how would you suggest that maybe that I could do that differently?’ And they can help them kind of problem shoot and figure out some different ways to try things.”

This style of judging has been the norm for the fair for years, Kopfer said, just the way things were done to mitigate the social distancing changed how it was done.

“It’s just a little different this year, in that we just did certain things at certain times and then no one else was allowed in the building,” she said. “So, normally we would do most of what we did … in one single day, and it would just all happen kind of at the same time, and it would be a madhouse in this building. But, we had to kind of put more control on that and control the amount of people that were around. So we went to this system.”

As members got their results, the items to be considered for overall championship were placed on tables to be reviewed later, while other creations were taken home as there were no displays set up. Once all the inside judging was done, the members were able to retrieve their items and take them home.

Outside in the holding area for the animals was noticeably different this year. The area lacked the distinct sounds and smells traditionally found at a county fair.

The Fair Board and the Extension Office decided to have animals only brought to the show arena area the day of their particular show. Part of this was due to returning the animals to their normal environment sooner to reduce the stress on them. There is also a horse disease, Vesicular Stomatitis Virus, in the area causing concern, Otte said.

“Right now there is a horse disease, VSV, going around that is highly contagious,” he said. “And, it can go to other species. So, it’s not just protecting the humans, it’s protecting the animals as well.

“It’s a lot of running back and forth because some families have kids in every single livestock project,” he added. “So, it’s a lot of back and forth. But a lot of those parents are also on the fair board and they said hey, ‘If that’s what we have to do so we can have our livestock show, that’s what we’re going to do.’”

With the horse disease and the risks of possible exposure to COVID-19, Otte said he and the staff at the Extension Office along with volunteers were cleaning and sanitizing surfaces every night between the shows, cleaning and sanitizing the restrooms and common areas regularly as well as requiring masks to be worn inside the exhibit area and inside the show ring when social distancing couldn’t be avoided.

As the days carried on, the routine of the fair took hold for the members. They arrived, set up their holding areas or pins to make their animals comfortable, cleaned and weighed them before the shows started.

Once inside the ring, the members were back in familiar territory as they tried to showcase their projects to the judge in the ring and the fans tuning in via the Extension Office Facebook page for the livestream of the shows.

“Several years ago, 25 years ago, we moved all the livestock shows to the evening because they’re always so popular,” Otte said. “Everybody likes to come out and see them and it just breaks all of our hearts that we can’t do that this year — but it’s just for everyone’s safety and health. A lot of people are disappointed, including the extension agents. But, it’s a chance for us to try something different. We may find next year, if things are back to normal, that we may still broadcast a stream on Facebook Live — because some nights during the fair, let’s face it, it can be pretty uncomfortably hot and humid out here.”

Otte said the videos, which have garnered hundreds of views, will remain on the Extension Office Facebook page for some time for people wishing to see the livestock shows. They have also made sure to take plenty of photos of the exhibits and the members with their ribbons for families to see and comment.

“It was fortunate that we were able to do what we could do,” Erichsen said. “Honestly, it’s been a lot of work. I want to give a honest shout out to our extension staff, for our agents and our ladies that work in the office, they have done amazing. A lot more work for Ginger, and she has done an amazing job at get trying to give the kids the ultimate fair experience — you know a perfect experience like she wants. All of our extension staff and everything have been commendable.”

The fair closed Thursday with the traditional livestock and project auction.

“The 2020 Geary County Free Fair Livestock and Project Auction will be one for the record books,” Otte said in an email with the results. “Not so much for the totals, but because it was ground breaking in many ways. An asterisk will have to be added next to it as the fair and auction occurred during the Covid-19 Pandemic.

“Numbers of livestock and projects auctioned declined from the past several years, with 38 livestock auctioned and 32 projects for a total sale bill of 70 items,” he added. “Livestock premiums totaled $30,225, project premiums totaled $9,040 for a premium total of $39,265. While this is less than the past several years due to fewer items being auctioned, average livestock premiums were up from last year although project premiums lagged. Average livestock premium was $795.39 up from $753.98 in 2019. Average project premium was $282.50 down from $320.13 in 2019.”

The fair might have been different this year, but the hard work, long hours and dedication to complete their projects have to be acknowledged as well.

“So, all these kids that showed up, their hearts are in this,” said Caleb Strauss, father of three 4-H members. “And, I think, every one of them deserves our praise and applause for going ahead and doing the hard work with a limited fair.”

The fair will be a memorable one for many of the members as well. There was a fist time exhibitor that was crowned Division Champion in Poultry — Lucas Laudick. A back-to-back Champion in Beef — Tava Gustafson. And a winner of a newly renamed award dedicated to a 4-H member who passed away earlier this year— Kaycee Butler.

“It was very special,” she emotionally said. “I did not expect it.”

The award was named after Grady Erichsen who was an avid 4-H member. He would run around the pens and lift everyone up, she said.

Winners will have the opportunity to showcase their projects during the 2020 Kansas State Fair Livestock Showcase in August. The showcase is open to Kansas 4-H and FFA exhibitors that have nominated livestock projects for the 2020 Kansas State Fair as well as open livestock shows with entries open to out-of-state exhibitors, according to the Kansas State Fair website, www.kansasstatefair.com/p/participate/2020-livestock-showcase-release

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