What I’ve Learned from Judging Natural Resource Projects at the State Fair

By: Woody Woodruff

“In life our successes are measured by our legacy. Some legacies are accumulations of cash and possessions that benefit the closest few for a moment in time. What I witnessed at the 4-H State Fair this year is the type of legacy that will benefit the whole community and last far into the future.”

I always look forward to my annual opportunity to judge county 4-H winners as they compete in the Illinois State Fair’s state competition.  I am fortunate to serve as the Natural Resources Project judge. This event is held over a four-day span to allow all 101 counties to come and compete for awards and cash premiums. This year the state 4-H competition saw an increase in over 200 exhibitors. This is always a good sign that the 4-H experience is working well, and the Natural Resources Project area was no exception. All four days had increased attendance.

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Photo Credit: George Czapar

There is a lot of energy that goes into showing at a state fair event. For example, if you are showing livestock you will need to first complete your quality assurance and ethics certification, as well as documentation of animal health and ownership. Every project requires a different level of preparation and training.  Most 4-H project areas are judged as Level 1, Level 2, and Level 3, or in the Innovative Class Level. This is mostly based on experience level and age combined. Level 3 projects should be at a higher standard than level 1 and the Innovative Level is for those who have mastered their project area.  In Natural Resources a good project needs lots of planning, research, experimentation, and personal documentation, and in the Innovative Class you also need to educate others about your gained innovation area skills. There are always a few exhibits each day that shine above the others. Usually there are clear winners at each level of competition. The skill set for these exhibits can be passed down from generation to generation. Family based learning is a core principle in the 4-H experience.

Due to the fact that Illinois Stewardship Alliance is a state-wide organization, this year I was able to make a correlation between the relationship of community-based learning and the key role it plays in the adoption and the understanding of fundamentals in a project area. I always start each interview with the same two questions: what town are you from and what was your motivation in choosing the topic for your Natural Resource display? This is mainly to relax them, with the first being the easiest question to answer. The second question helps me to figure out what types of questions to focus on that will make the interview as comfortable as possible and create a learning experience just for the exhibitor. My discovery moment came when I noticed a correlation to the first question.  All but one of the state level innovative projects, and several from each of the other levels, came from towns that have community-based projects in which I am involved or had visited through my work at Illinois Stewardship Alliance. They are all successful conservation-oriented farming communities. The common thread that holds this hypothesis together for me was the fact that two of the Innovator Class exhibitors told me that they were mentored by a member of a local conservation group that I had met in my work with both of their area’s watershed projects. Both of these steering committee members served as inspirations to the 4-Hers and their state level Natural Resource Innovative exhibits. But these innovative class exhibitors took what they learned and applied it further.

As an example of one of these 4-H projects, one of the exhibitors conducted surveys of public opinion on nutrients and grey water waste entering local streams and ways to improve our efforts in protecting those drinking water sources. The exhibitor passed out flyers and spoke to the community leaders on ways to engage both urban and rural citizens in an effort to effect positive change. From this the exhibitor started a newsletter that was in the process of finding a source of funding to mail it out to the surrounding communities. This was also going to be the exhibitor’s area of discipline when attending college. This 4-H member was fortunate to find a person in their community that they could use as a resource to grow as a youth leader and gain key life skills that will help us all protect or precious resources.

In life our successes are measured by our legacy. Some legacies are accumulations of cash and possessions that benefit the closest few for a moment in time. What I witnessed at the 4-H State Fair this year is the type of legacy that will benefit the whole community and last far into the future.