After months of painstaking preparation, 4-H students are ready to show their skills and showcase their animals at the Washington County Fair.
On a sweltering summer day in mid-July, Levi Szajner and his sister Hannah guided their two pigs to a small shaded valley on their family’s farm in Lake Elmo.
Rainwater from recent storms temporarily flooded the low land, creating a muddy paradise where the pigs, Earl and Oliver, could chill until their big day at the Washington County Fair.
For the past several months, Levi raised Earl and Oliver as if they were family pets, keeping them cool, keeping them fed and even taking them for walks to build muscle. Later this month, he hopes all that hard work will pay off when he showcases the pair, which are ultimately destined for market, for judging at the fair as a member of 4-H, the youth development program of the University of Minnesota Extension Service.
“County Fair is the highlight of the summer for 4-H kids, before the State Fair,” Hannah said. “It’s what everyone is working toward all summer.”
The 4-H program serves as a backbone for the Washington County Fair, with eight of 12 buildings used for 4-H exhibitions and events, said Dan Dolan, chairman of the Washington County Extension Committee.
For members involved with livestock, the County Fair is a preliminary event offering a chance to compete at the State Fair next month.
“There’s only a certain number of spaces allocated at the State Fair for 4-H members, so it’s a big honor to win at the county level,” 4-H program coordinator Ann Church said.
During the swine competition, judges look for animals with good muscle tone and strong legs so that they can exercise daily and stay healthy, Church said.
“Judges can tell if an animal has been cared for and well-fed,” she added. “Good body structure and movement are very critical. The kids showing them also will be walking around a ring, so the judges can tell how much time they’ve put into training them.”
Although Levi is only in his second year of raising pigs, his family has been involved in the 4-H program for many years, showing rabbits, dogs, cats, horses and chickens at the fair.
“This was basically our family sport growing up, and it was nice because we could all be together,” Hannah said. “It wasn’t like one kid ran off to soccer while the other was playing basketball.”
Sue Szajner, Levi and Hannah’s mother, said raising animals has been a great bonding experience for her family because it’s an activity that requires everyone to pitch in.
“It’s a project you can do together as a family. We all help out. It’s like raising a temporary sibling,” she said.
And just like siblings, Earl and Oliver contribute their unique personalities to the Szajner family. Earl wags his tail like a dog and excitedly runs to greet people with his slobbery nose. Oliver, on the other hand, is a bit lazier, although he doesn’t like to be alone, Levi said.
Taking Earl and Oliver to the fair this year will be the last time 19-year-old Levi competes as a 4-H member. The program is open to students in kindergarten through their first year of college. But Levi and Hannah, 22, will continue to work with the program as alumni.