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Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

June 29, 2006

Fair Weather Ahead for County Extension Offices

by Erin Rosacker

When you think of a county fair, your arteries may harden with visions of funnel cakes, deep fried candy bars and corndogs, but fair time means a lot of hard work for the Iowa State University Extension offices located throughout Iowa's 99 counties.

The words "Extension" and "fair" seem to go hand-in-hand, giving ISU statewide involvement -- and exposure -- on a personal basis, one community at a time.

According to the Association of Iowa Fairs, more than 2.3 million people attended Iowa's county fairs in 2005. That number doesn't include the Iowa State Fair. On average, that works out to more than 22,000 visitors per county fair.

The earliest event is the Big Four Fair, a "preshow" June 16-18 that includes participants from four counties (Allamakee, Clayton, Fayette, Winneshiek). Most fairs are held in July and early August prior to the State Fair (August 10-20). The Clay County Fair (Sept. 9-17) and the National Cattle Congress (Sept. 14-17), a large regional fair, take place after the State Fair. In all, there are 106 county and district fairs in the state.

Youth gone wild

Display booths are one avenue of connecting with fair-goers, educating the public on what Extension has to offer to everyone in the community. But the lion's share of Extension's fair work is with the county youth programs.

"It really is probably the most visible thing that Extension has on an annual basis," said Jerry Chizek, extension education director in Calhoun County. "We've worked with youth and leaders for the entire year and this is the pinnacle of their year."

There are more than 127,000 Iowa youngsters involved in the 4-H program, with about 32,000 actually exhibiting at the fairs, giving ISU a leg up on recruiting future Iowa Staters.

"We have the opportunity to touch the lives of these young people," said Chuck Morris, who serves as Extension's youth and 4-H program director. "There are a number of us -- I would be one of those -- that 4-H involvement led us to come to Iowa State University."

Crunch time

Fair preparations for many county Extension offices are year long, beginning with evaluations immediately following the current fair. Extension staff work closely with the local fair board to ready for the upcoming event, with duties ranging from lining up judges and volunteers to packing the ribbons and supplies in boxes for each venue.

Crunch time hits as entry deadlines approach just weeks before the fair. Paperwork and phone calls, along with foot traffic, increase as youth projects and contests near.

"It takes a lot of people working together to make it happen," said Beverly Peters, extension education director in Franklin County. She is preparing for her 36th fair this year, with five staff members involved in the organization of one of the biggest county fairs in the state.

Some fairs, like the Story County 4-H Fair in Nevada, are strictly youth fairs with only 4-H and FFA exhibitors. Some are big fairs with open class participation, as well as grandstand shows, rodeos and carnival midways.

Big or small, ISU Extension plays a major role in Iowa's local fairs and the development of area youth programs. But that impact is a two-way street.

"It's such a breath of fresh air," said Judy Hensley, extension education director for Ringgold County. "To be with the kids, and talk to them, and find out what they've done over the past year and what they might like to do the next year for 4-H."


Extension offices in Iowa's 99 counties are busy with preparations for local and regional fairs.


"It's such a breath of fresh air. To be with the kids, and talk to them, and find out what they've done over the past year and what they might like to do the next year for 4-H."

Judy Hensley, Ringgold County CEED