For only the second time since I can remember, I will not be attending the Minnesota State Fair. The first was a matter of circumstance - living hundreds of miles away. This time, however, was an oversight on my part, as Willie and I planned our much-anticipated summer vacation during the Minnesota holiday.
As we plan for our getaway, I can't help but think of all the young 4-H members preparing their animals for the livestock encampment weekend and the memories that will last long after the barn doors close.
After we moved to Minnesota and were living in the country, Dad encouraged my siblings and I to join 4-H. I was nine years old at the time and overly enthusiastic about the vast possibilities of projects to present at the fair - from poultry to dairy to photography to sewing ... the list goes on.
Emily was our first dairy animal on our hobby farm. She was my brother, Nick's, and in our opinion a promising fall calf - a colorful personality, friendly and could walk like a dog.
The judge thought otherwise and politely pointed out that maybe we shouldn't have housed her with the steers, following the same diet as her male counterparts.
Emily was our first lesson learned.
The next teaching moment came a few years down the road, when I was eligible for a state fair trip. That year, I had shown a pen of Buff Orpington pullets in an egg production class. I had just missed the state fair cutoff and was beside myself as all my friends moved on to the state competition without me.
As luck would have it, a spot in the state fair lineup opened and I proudly took my pen of birds to the state fair. But as quickly as luck arrived, it too dissipated when the show ring clerk handed me a red ribbon.
My first state fair trip was another lesson learned.
Throughout the years, the lessons continued and with each fair I gained a greater appreciation for my work throughout the year that led up to those pivotal weeks of summer, but also my self respect as I improved upon each project.
Fairs were also a time to foster relationships between people who share the same values as me and knew how to make fun of being in the barn on those early mornings and late nights.
Recalling those times, the most comical moments were found on the day of our dairy show. We had a friendly rivalry with the neighboring 4-H club to see who could make it out to the wash rack first on show day. For a few years, we were in the barns first, washing our cows in the morning darkness.
It was bittersweet when my time in 4-H ended, and the fairs no longer guaranteed a vacation of sorts. But this year has been different, and in a good way. I've had the chance to return to my 4-H roots and volunteer my time at county fairs in central Minnesota as a judge for various events.
Willie is probably tired of me coming home from the fairs, giddy with excitement for the youth who are developing their passion in agriculture - but I can't help myself.
Like many in agriculture, the 4-H organization shaped my future - my understanding of responsibility, fortitude and success, but also failure. It was through my years in 4-H that I created the strongest of friendships and a path towards my career today.
And while I may be missing the greatest days of summer, I'm content in knowing there are hundreds of youth across the state taking part in an event where, for them, the work feels like vacation.