Editor's Note: This story originally appeared in the Rural Living special section published with the Thursday, March 25 Perham Focus.

One day last spring, University of Minnesota Extension educator Janet Malone opened an envelope and found a $20,000 check inside. With it was a note thanking 4-H for all the work it was doing in East Otter Tail County.

It couldn’t have arrived at a more providential time, as the East Otter Tail County Fair, 4-H’s biggest fundraising event, had been canceled. The donation covered what they would have raised, and then some.

“It was a relief for us as far as budgeting and financial needs for 2020,” Malone said. “I can’t say enough about how that made such a huge difference for us being able to move forward.”

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An East Otter Tail 4-H'er goes ice fishing during a 2020 outing. (Submitted Photo)
An East Otter Tail 4-H'er goes ice fishing during a 2020 outing. (Submitted Photo)

It was a bright spot in a year that has been marked by uncertainty for 4-H’ers. Their season ended abruptly last year, with unfinished projects and the loss of a place to show their projects to the public. County and state fairs are the pinnacle of a 4-H year, giving them a chance to compete against other youth, demonstrate what they have learned that year, and get feedback from judges.

“I do hear a lot from 4-H’ers that they were disappointed that there wasn’t a fair,” said Kayla Jahnke, who leads the Super Stitchers group and the Perham Pride club. “I understand their pain, I really do.”

Not only was the county fair canceled, but the Minnesota State Fair was, too. That left 4-H’ers like James Minten of New York Mills missing the annual get-together of friends across the state, as well as playing cards in the barn during downtime.

One solution, Zoom meetings, helped, although some kids didn’t have great internet connections at home, and others needed hands-on help from group leaders. The number of kids who took part in the annual summer showcase of 4-H projects slid from 223 in 2019 to 69 in 2020, Malone said.

If there’s one thing 4-H’ers are learning, though, it’s adaptability. In normal years, Minten and his fellow 4-H ambassadors would organize craft events for younger members at school. This year, the ambassadors assembled kits for the younger 4-H’ers to work on at home.

In a normal year, they would go roller-skating or swimming over the winter. The pandemic prevented that from happening in 2020, so they organized an ice fishing outing instead on Lake Buchanan, near Ottertail, that drew 56 kids.

“It went well,” said Minten, one of the organizers. “It was nice that day; they sat on pails or their parents brought portables or fish houses.”

Thanks to the $20,000 donation, the ice fishing event was free to attend, and organizers were able to offer prizes, Malone said. The donation has also helped 4-H purchase programming supplies and provide leadership training.

It remains to be seen how 4-H will fare after the pandemic threat abates.

“Will they walk back into doing 4-H?” Malone said. “If you take it off your plate, will you leave it off your plate, or will you see the value of it and come back?”

A 4-H'er pins a pillowcase during a club event in 2020. (Submitted Photo)
A 4-H'er pins a pillowcase during a club event in 2020. (Submitted Photo)

The other major farm program for youth in Perham, FFA, has also seen major adjustments this year. They were affected by the decision to close the county fair, as they normally team up with the New York Mills FFA team to run the children’s barn, said President Cooper Brasel.

Meetings have gone virtual, including the competitions that would normally be held in person.

The April state convention, normally held at the University of Minnesota, has been moved to St. Cloud, with what looks to be a mixture of virtual and in-person events, he said.

“For me, personally, it’s been, ‘How do I adjust? How do I adapt?’” Brasel said. “I’ve been doing it for three years without COVID. Everything was laid out, pre-planned, all I had to do was fill in the information. This last year, we had to make it up on the fly.”

He added, “I think we’ve done a pretty good job so far.”