The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in the cancellation of many annual events this year, including the East Otter Tail County Fair. For many youths participating in one of the 15 4-H clubs in Easter Otter Tail County, the county fair usually means preparing and entering 4-H exhibits, whether those exhibits are livestock showing or project-based.

In a normal year at the local fair, over 100 dairy animals and 75 to 80 swine would be shown, according to Janet Malone, the Extension Educator for 4-H Youth Development of East Otter Tail County.

“Over the years, we typically have 1,500 to 2,000 4-H exhibits that’ll come into the county fair for East Otter Tail County,” Malone said.

Though the fair is canceled, 4-H exhibits are not.

“We are working on virtual judging for our 4-Hers to showcase their events,” Malone said.

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As of early June, East Otter Tail County 4-H was still figuring out exactly how the virtual judging system would work, Malone said, with club members involved in the process and taking available technology into account.

The idea is that 4-Hers will enter their exhibits using the entry system they have used in past years, then they will upload photos and videos of their projects, Malone said. The judging will take place over Zoom meetings set up between the 4-Hers and the judge.

“We’re having some Zoom meetings with some of our 4-H families in this coming week that will give us some feedback on their preferences and how they would like to showcase their 4-H work this year,” Malone said.

The date for the virtual exhibits and judging had not been set yet at press time, but the plan was to try to keep it around when the fair would have been, Malone said. This year's fair was set to take place July 23-26, so the goal is to do the entry, virtual showcasing and virtual judging around then. Many families had already arranged to be off around then to take part in 4-H activities at the fair, Malone said.

The local 4-H clubs have been trying to make the best of how things have gone this year as they respect the decisions made by both the fair board and the University of Minnesota to keep people safe, Malone said.

“It’s been a challenge. I’m not going to say that it’s not been a challenge,” Malone said. ”But it’s not a challenge that we can’t overcome if we put some positive attitude into trying to make it work the best way we can make it work.”

“The motto in 4-H is, 'Making the best better,'” Malone said. So while the cancellation of this year’s county fair is not ideal, East Otter Tail County 4-H is hoping 4-Hers will learn something from the non-traditional experience.

Still, Malone said, "I feel for our graduates who have gone through a different process of being able to be recognized for their work. I know that they’re disappointed."

Pandemic has affected more than just the fair

How county fair exhibits will be showcased is not the only part of 4-H that the COVID-19 pandemic has affected. 4-H uses a learning model that is very face-to-face and hands-on, Malone said. That makes it challenging for distance learning or technology to be used in the learning process.

“We’ve had to do some adapting and stepping outside of our comfort zone to think outside the box to make our 4-H experience positive for our young people,” Malone said.

One of the ways 4-H has tried to keep things positive during the pandemic has been by offering container gardening along with one of the gardening clubs in Perham, Malone said. Using curbside pickup for the containers, seeds, and plants, 4-Hers have been taking those supplies home and then watching an instructional teaching video to learn how to create their own container gardens.