It was a hot August day at the Rusk County Fairgrounds in Wisconsin. I was there as the University of Wisconsin-Extension 4-H agent recording the final weights of the 4-H and FFA project steers. One particular project animal belonging to Shawn Isdepski just didn’t want any part of the scale enclosure and would only go in so far.

We tried everything, and even though the animal was not making much of a fuss, it didn’t want to go in all the way. Maybe it knew what was eventually coming after the show ring. We were getting nowhere. So, I could not believe my eyes when Shawn, barefoot and in shorts and a T-shirt, went to the rear of the steer, lifted the back end of the 1,500-pound steer and shoved it all the way in and then closed the rear gate.

Shawn was a farm boy, an interior lineman on the state championship football team where I was an assistant coach, and one of the nicest young men I ever knew. He just took control and solved the problem. That is what 4-H and FFA youth do every day. The clover emblem of Head, Heart, Hands and Health and FFA blue jackets are symbols of significant youth development. When you add up all the 4-H and FFA youth enrolled, they represent the largest youth development program in the country.

I have been involved in many venues of youth development in my career and serving as a 4-H agent was one of the most rewarding. 4-H and FAA (Future Farmers of America) are programs that develop life skills unlike any other. Livestock projects are real world and 24/7 when a young person takes on the responsibility of raising an animal for the fair. They are committed and for some it is an eye-opening experience.

They work with the animal from the first weigh-in to the final weigh-in, monitoring the weight-of-gain, and getting the animal used to being handled, in preparation for the show ring and the fair auction. This is a project you can’t put off to the last minute, you have to work your animal consistently. When you see a small youth in the ring with a 1,500-pound animal being walked around the ring calmly like a small pet dog, it shows the effort put in by the youth. If they haven’t worked with the animal it shows too and can get exciting in a hurry.

My livestock youth program also worked with a local meat processor who was a strong supporter of 4-H and FFA. We held carcass judging at the processing plant. This is where it became very real for the youth. Beyond seeing the animal depart after the auction and receiving their check from a local buyer, they now saw their project hanging on a hook being judged for quality and finish. The first time was always the hardest for the youth, but after a few projects, they saw it as part of the process.

At Fireman’s Field this week you will have seen youth bringing their project animals into the show ring. Bidders also made bids on the animals. The buyers are not just buying the animal for their freezer, they are acknowledging and supporting the effort and learning our 4-H and FFA youth have gained. It is a special time for our 4-H and FFA youth.

We need to also recognize the local merchants and individuals who made the bids.

Beside the livestock projects there are many other youth projects on display. It does not get better than this. See you at the fair.

John Rousch is the director of the Highlands Aviation and Aerospace Academy, a community partnership supporting youth aviation education. He can be reached at johnrousch73@gmail.com, call or text 863-273-0522.