It’s all about fair fun and life skills

The Idaho County Fair gets underway this week at the fairgrounds in Cottonwood. Idaho County has one of the largest 4-H programs in northern Idaho, with 233 youths currently enrolled for market livestock projects, up from 195 last year.

GRANGEVILLE — There’s lots to see and do at the Idaho County Fair, but possibly the most important feature is something people don’t see.

“The skills that we teach them — not only the bookkeeping and economic side of it, but also life skills, like how to work with other people, on a team, how to be a leader in a club, public speaking skills,” said University of Idaho/Idaho County Extension Agent Jim Church, describing the benefits county fair projects bring to young people.

“They each have to give a demonstration every year in front of their peers in their club, which, when you’re 9 years old, that can be pretty intimidating,” Church said. “A county fair is such a valuable thing for young people, especially in rural areas.”

The Idaho County Fair gets underway this week at the fairgrounds in Cottonwood. Church, who will be presiding over his 33rd fair, and 4-H coordinator Susie Heckman, who is ticking off 31 years of her own, have not dimmed in their enthusiasm and appreciation for the value of the county fair.

There’s always an economic benefit to a county fair that reaches beyond just the fairgrounds, but Church said there’s more to it than that.

“Well, the economic impact probably isn’t as high as the impact it makes on the development of kids,” he said. “They get some money from the sale of their animal. The proceeds pay for feed and to buy an animal, so there is a kickback that way. But probably the majority of that money is put into an account for those kids to go on to college or trade school or just start your life. So the way I look at it is, it’s a child development program, but it also helps them get going in their life.”

In 1914, Congress passed the Smith-Lever Act that created the Cooperative Extension System at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and nationalized 4-H.

The 4-H program is part of America’s 109 land-grant universities, and the Extension system and extends from farming communities to urban neighborhoods to suburban schoolyards.

The official motto: “I pledge my head to clearer thinking, my heart to better loyalty, my hands to larger service, and my health to better living, for my club, my community, my country, and my world,” originated in 1902.

Nationwide, there are 6 million youths in 4-H clubs; 540,000 volunteers, 3,500 professionals and 60 million alumni, according to the webpage.

In Idaho County, which has one of the largest 4-H clubs in northern Idaho, this year there are 233 youths enrolled for market livestock projects, up from 195 last year, 85 certified adult volunteer leaders and as many as 200 volunteers all together.

Heckman, who supervises the program, is in the enviable position of never having to look for helpers.

“I’ve never actually recruited volunteers,” she said. “They’re parents whose kids are in the club, community people that have skills or an expertise or a hobby they want to share, and they step forward. They see the value in what they’re teaching the kids, I think, and they enjoy that interaction with them. So it makes it a little easier.”

Church, whose professional specialty is livestock, also works as a judge in other counties in Idaho, Washington and Oregon, and said Idaho County is not alone in having a strong 4-H program.

County fairs may be declining somewhat in some areas, Church said, “but most of them have been able to maintain their numbers and then actually grow some. In our region, Latah County has grown quite a bit in their numbers. Nez Perce County has grown; Lewis County has grown.”

He said 4-H remains popular “at least in the rural areas. It’s a tradition for a lot of families, and so it continues to thrive.

“I’ve got second-generation 4-Hers now in the program from kids I had when I got here. And it won’t be too many years when I have grandkids (of the original 4-H members.) But they see the value of what it did for them in their lives, and so they want their kids to be involved.”

Although traditional livestock and homemaking projects remain the most popular among 4-H youth, Church said there is a growing interest in the club’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) projects, such as computer robotics.

Club members also flock to the citizenship programs, including one that includes a trip to Washington, D.C., every four years to help youths learn about the federal government. Each year, some 4-H students are sent to the state Legislature in a similar Know Your Government program.

The ambassador program, designed as a leadership development vehicle for high school youths, also is popular in Idaho County. And in the homemaking department, Making the Most of Me, which teaches about analyzing and purchasing clothing, is showing strong growth.

The Idaho County fairgrounds has gradually seen improvements over the years, and the volunteer fair board is working on a longtime goal to construct a new bathroom facility to accommodate the burgeoning crowd.

Church said the major grounds improvements this year include the purchase of an electronic livestock scale to replace the old scale that was used for 40-plus years. The fair board also had to construct a new performance stage after a flash flood last spring undermined the former gazebo where musical acts were held.

One of the major developments over the years has been the recreational vehicle parking lot, where families involved in the fair stay during the event.

“When I started here,” Church said, “there might be three or four campers there, and now it’s like a community campground. Families come and spend a week and they have a ball. So that’s really kind of neat. A big community campout.”

Three decades of work on the county fair, both Church and Heckman said, have deepened their appreciation for how it pulls the county together during this time of year.

“Probably my favorite thing is seeing the reaction of the kids,” Church said. “They’re so excited and just watching how much fun they have and just watching them grow.”

Heckman said all year long 4-Hers and their leaders are working on their projects in their individual communities.

“And the fair is the time when everyone is all together, really, for the first time all year,” she said. “So for that week, everybody’s that’s involved in this program, adult and youth, is at the same place at the same time, and it’s just a lot of fun.”

Hedberg may be contacted at or (208) 983-2326.


What: Idaho County Fair

When: Wednesday through Saturday

Where: Idaho County fairgrounds between East and King streets in Cottonwood

Cost: Free

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