School is back in session, and while it probably took a few weeks for students and teachers to readjust to the classroom setting, I’d like to think Iowa’s students returned a little wiser this fall.

That’s because summer isn’t just “break” season, it’s also county fair season – an opportunity for Iowa’s students (and adults) to gain hands-on learning in a new environment.

I attended three different county fairs this summer (and the Iowa State Fair), and it took me back to the days when I exhibited 4-H projects at the Buchanan County Fair in Independence, where I also showed rabbits and pigs.

While I was successful in the show ring, it was the lessons raising and showing my animals that were worth far more than the premium money attached to the ribbons and helped me understand more about my farming parents. Here are a few of the lessons I learned:

  1. Animal care: Though my parents had been raising livestock for several years, this was my chance to learn how to successfully raise my animals. I learned that exceptional care was important, not only because it meant a better pig for the judge, but more importantly because it would enter the food chain after the fair.

  2. Working hard: It took a lot of time to raise my animals and prepare them for the show ring. The work didn’t stop when the fair was over, either. On my parents’ wean-to-finish pig farm, the chores continued. I still had about 30 other rabbits in the barn that required my care, too. My parents continue to raise pigs on that farm, and their work doesn’t end when one load of pigs gets sent to market. The process continues with cleaning the barn, providing feed, water, shelter, and a safe, healthy environment for their pigs. And that’s 365 days a year, not just during fair season or for a little while.

  3. Responsibility: The rabbits and pigs that were a part of my 4-H projects relied on me for feed, water, and a clean living environment. It was up to me to learn how to manage my time and responsibilities with school, work, and sports to ensure the animals’ needs were met. Today, livestock farmers like my parents continue to take on the responsibilities of caring for their pigs. And they do it knowing that every decision they make affects our food supply-something they take very seriously.

  4. Fiscal responsibility: In order to earn money through a 4-H livestock project, I needed to learn the costs of raising my animals for the fair. The costs of feed, bedding, medicine (if needed) were all a part of the budget. When my pigs were sold at the end of the fair during a live auction, I relied on the auctioneer and the auction’s customers to bring the best price. Balancing a budget is an important skill I learned early on as a young 4-H member.

  5. Winning isn’t everything: Perhaps one of the most difficult things about showing was placing dead last in a class. But it was the encouragement from my parents and others that taught me to pick myself up, dust myself off, stay positive, and keep working hard. And those same people, and others, continue to encourage me today, outside of the show ring. My parents know that markets are volatile. Though they do their best to lock in feed and prices for their pigs, they don’t always get the highest prices for their animals or the lowest feed prices for their feed ration. But they persevere, like other livestock farmers, and work hard to supply the world with safe, healthy pork.
I learned these lessons about agriculture and life in the county fair “classroom”. The same courses or lessons are still being taught today, and each 4-H member and exhibitor are learning the course material through different experiences. And that’s the best summer school available.

Story by Bethany Baratta. Bethany is a commodities writer for Iowa Farm Bureau. 

Photos by Gary Fandel. Gary is a photographer and writer for Iowa Farm Bureau.