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As fairs return, 4-H members ready to get back to events after pandemic year

  • Iain McCurry, 16, of Webster, washes his 4-month-old Jersey calf, Honey Bunn, during the North Haverhill Fair in North Haverhill on Wednesday. McCurry has leased animals in the past, but this is his first year showing cows he raised himself. Alex Driehaus / Valley News

  • Kylie Ells, 18, of Orange, milks her 4-year-old Guernsey cow, Akela, during the North Haverhill Fair in North Haverhill on Wednesday. Huckins said she has been around dairy cows for her whole life, and last year was the first time she hadn’t shown her cows at the fair since she was old enough to participate in 4-H. “I definitely missed it,” Huckins said. Valley News / Report For America — Alex Driehaus

Valley News
Published: 7/29/2021 4:31:06 PM

With goats bleating, cows mooing and the smell of hay and fried food wafting through the air, the North Haverhill Fair began Wednesday, and 4-H clubber Kylie Ells was excited to be back after the pandemic derailed many of last summer’s events.

“Next year is my last year in 4-H, so not being able to do it was really upsetting,” Ells, a recent Mascoma Valley Regional High School graduate, said this week. “Last year was the first time not showing since literally the first year I was born. I was going when I was a baby even; pretty much as soon as I could walk I was walking with (my parents) in the show ring. ... I’m just really excited to be able to go again, and I know that a lot of other kids are, too.”

After a year of socially distanced activities, New Hampshire 4-H member are back at Upper Valley fairs, showing animals and moving toward more in-person activities.

Ells, of Orange, will be showing five Guernsey milk cows at the end of the week. Although she’s participating in the fair through the Cardigan Mountain Bobcats 4-H club, she’ll be entered under the name of her fourth-generation family farm, Huckins Farm. To prepare, most of her time in the lead-up to the fair was spent clipping the Guernseys’ hair and washing them so they look as good as possible. Clipping time alone can take up to three hours per cow.

When fairs were canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, 4-H communities got creative to stay active, inspiring this year’s display theme of “4-H Outside the Box.”

Finding most kids “Zoomed out” from school, some clubs put together do-it-yourself activities in take-home kits. Some groups sewed cloth masks. There was a winter-hiking challenge, and new state clubs were created to connect kids from across New Hampshire.

Grafton County 4-H program manager Donna Lee remembers the October carved pumpkin display outside Grafton County Nursing Home as an event that exemplified the past year. With 50 to 60 pumpkins on bleachers borrowed from the fairgrounds, Lee said, it was a nice physical piece reminding the nursing home residents that the 4-H participants, and the broader community, were still there.

“We really want (kids) to get involved in our communities and to give back,” said Sullivan County 4-H Program Manager Laurie Field. “It gives them some independence and some self-worth and a sense of belonging. ... A lack of belonging is associated with stress, so that sense of belonging creates well-being.”

On Wednesday at the fair in North Haverhill, Merrimack County 4-H Livestock Club participant Iain McCurry, 16, said that 4-H is really about community.

“When you make friends in 4-H, they’re always going to be around,” he said. “A lot of it’s about people, sometimes even about the public because you’re around the public all the time. ... I miss showing; I miss seeing my friends that I only see at fairs.”

Unlike Ells, McCurry didn’t grow up on a farm. After seven years of leasing animals to show for 4-H, McCurry is emerging from pandemic isolation with his own two Jerseys, one given to him as a birthday present. With Honey Bunn and Moonpie, McCurry hopes to get to the highest level of fair showing in the Northeast at The Big E: the Eastern States Exposition, in West Springfield, Mass. North Haverhill is the first qualifying fair for The Big E, which is in September.

Ells, the recent Mascoma graduate, said the farm chores and care for the animals continued even when the fairs and formal 4-H programs were dormant.

“It’s a huge part of the kids’ lives,” Ells said. “It’s not like the other projects where you can just set it down and come back to it. When COVID hit, we were still having to take care of our animals and still keep them going and ready even though we weren’t doing what we wanted with them. It’s not something you can just push aside.”

Fairs might look a little different this year as 4-H COVID-19 guidelines try to keep people safe. With many participants too young to be vaccinated and most fair events in an outdoor setting, the main focus is on social distancing. Between 4-H and the fair foundation, Lee said there will be so much hand sanitizer at fairs, “you’ll be able to bathe in it.”

The North Haverhill Fair runs through Sunday, and the Cornish Fair, another big event for 4-H, starts Aug. 20.

“I’m excited to get all the kids back together in person, particularly for that sense of belonging, that connecting, that one-on-one,” said Field, the Sullivan County program manager. Ultimately, she said, she wanted the community to know that “we’re alive and we’re up and running.”

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