Judging at the Clayton County Fair. A novel way to get involved with 4-H

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Samuel Nemechek listens to Arnella Siggelkow as she critiques his entry in the Food & Nutrition class at the Clayton County Fair.

Megan Nemechek listens intently as a judge asks questions about her Clayton County Fair entry.

By Pam Reinig

Register Editor

Livestock judging tends to dominate the Clayton County Fair so you might be surprised to learn that these entries are actually smaller in number than non-livestock entries. This year, more than 1,080 dogs, horses, sheep, cattle, swine and rabbits were judged. That’s an impressive figure but non-livestock entries topped that number by several hundred with judges receiving more than 1,700 submissions in categories ranging from photography to food to clothing. 

The non-livestock items were evaluated before the fair; the best were displayed in the Exhibit Hall during the five-day event where the dozens of ribbons attached to them attested to not only the skill of the 4-Hers but also the tireless efforts of a dedicated team of judges.

According to Tammy Muller, 4-H and Youth Program Coordinator with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, 37 non-livestock judges were hired for this year’s Clayton County Fair. Judges were trained and compensated for their time. Non-livestock judges were paid $100 a day; the rate for livestock judges was higher and varied according to the size of the show.

The process of recruiting judges begins each January. Tammy scours her database of previous 4-H workers; her counterparts in other counties sometimes provide suggestions, as well. New judges are always welcome.

“A background in 4-H is helpful,” Tammy said, “but not necessary. Adults with a strong interest in young people and a talent to inspire them will do well.”

Bev Hamann, Garnavillo, and Suzanne Shirbroun, Farmersburg, started judging at the same time, about five years ago. Bev’s husband, the late Dennis Hamann, who was a familiar and highly respected fixture on the county fair circuit, encouraged her to get involved. This year, she served as a photography judge at five different county fairs.

“I enjoy taking photos and have been taking pictures for many, many years so I thought I might try judging that category at the fairs,” she said, adding that the reactions of the kids is a primary reason she stays involved.

“When they get a blue ribbon or learn that they might be going to state, when they listen to what you say and talk about their photos, those are the true rewards of doing this,” Bev said, adding that her team uses a “conference judging” method that includes significant interaction with the kids about their entries.

Suzanne took a different route to judging. She took the training classes to better understand what 4-H judges look for in fair projects.

“Shortly after finishing the training, a friend of mine who was then working in the Delaware County Extension Office called me at the last minute needing a replacement judge,” she said. “I just couldn’t say no.”

Since her two sons are involved in 4-H, FFA and other activities, Suzanne limits her judging efforts to one or two county fairs. However, she works several divisions that cover everything from crop production to outdoor adventures to digital storytelling to woodworking. Like Bev, she enjoys telling youngsters they’ve earned a ribbon or the chance to enter the Iowa State Fair. However, she said, not every interaction has a happy outcome.

“It’s so tough when a 4-Her comes to your table with a project that you know they worked on long and hard, and you have to disqualify it for something like a copyright issue,” she said. “I try to make such issues a learning experience and include the parent, if present, in the discussion so the family can learn for future years.”

The members of the Shirbroun family are faithful state fair goers. While there, Suzanne carves out time to check on the entries that advanced from the county competition.

“Joe and the boys usually just leave me in the 4-H building so I can check on how ‘my kids’ projects did,” she said.

Both Bev and Suzanne had some advice for people who might be interested in judging at future fairs. Bev recommends sticking with the process for two or three years “to get the hang of it.” Interacting with other judges, volunteers and 4-Hers helps, too. Suzanne recommends talking to experienced judges. The Hamanns were her mentors.

“When our schedules coincided, we would ride together,” she said. “I learned lots from both of them about the different ways to approach 4-H projects and write-ups.”

Fore more information on judging, contact the Clayton County Extension Office at 563-245-1451.

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