Do 4-H long enough and some things become second nature. Tuck in that shirt. It’s show time.

The sheep barn of the Dakota County Fairgrounds was filled with kids one evening last week. Many sported the 4-H look: club T-shirt, jeans, boots.

But the big event was still a week away, with opening day this Monday. Shuttered ticket booths sat in a parking lot. A man mowed the grass by the “Wacky Worm” ride and a cotton candy stand that were loaded on trailers in a corner of the fairgrounds.

What was unfolding last week was a piece of the 4-H process that fairgoers never see — the animal science interviews. The interviews are optional but give kids a chance to practice before fair attendees are asking them questions.

Kids sat in stalls where they will soon pen their livestock and were quizzed on their animal expertise: What steps should one take to prevent diseases? What’s an abscess? Do all rabbits have dewlaps?

Lundstrom, 16, spends much of the year on a 4-H quiz bowl team and rattled off answers. The only stumper? A question about diseases — he came up with a tale of mites but said disease questions tend to be “a little more challenging.”

“It’s a very big skill-building opportunity for them. It teaches them job skills,” Anja Johnson, the county’s 4-H program coordinator, said of the interview night.

Barb Liebenstein knows the impact of the youth organization’s public speaking and interviewing events. She saw how they changed her own once-shy kids.

On Monday, Liebenstein sat in one of the stalls with papers piled on her lap and a long roster of kids to interview. The 4-H mom from Dundas said her children are grown but she still helps out at clubs’ events.

She loves seeing a kid light up about a certain topic during an interview.

“When you get any of these kids going, the passion that they feel is strong,” Liebenstein said, and that enthusiasm makes the county and state fairs exciting.

“All year long, there’s kids that dream about this,” she said.

4-H’er for life

County fairs are a qualifier for the State Fair.

Dakota County will send about 75 animals to the State Fair this year, Johnson said.

The county has the largest population of 4-H’ers in the state, she said, with 1,067 participants.

And while they try not to flaunt it, there’s a lot of Dakota County pride, 4-H’er Gabriella Sorg said, and even a county cheer that ends with “Dakota! Dakota! The best of Minnesota!”

Sorg, 19, has been in 4-H since she was 5. This is the last year she can participate in the competitions.

It’s sad, she said, but she knows 4-H will remain a part of her life.

She’s joining a sorority at the University of Minnesota that was founded on 4-H traditions. She is a 4-H camp counselor. Her family leases animals to 4-H kids.

As Sorg reflected on the organization, 12-year-old Hally Frandrup sidled up alongside her. Frandrup, who lives five minutes away from Sorg, “leases” a cow from her family. She stops by the Sorgs’ dairy farm once or twice a week to feed and wash the animal. She’ll put a halter on the cow and walk it around the farm.

Many young people say 4-H taught them public speaking or how to win or lose gracefully. But for Sorg, one of the biggest takeaways from the past 14 years is the importance of investing time in someone and not expecting anything in return.

“It’s kind of, what can I do for the younger kids?” she said. “I don’t think that I will ever leave 4-H.”