The whiny “baas” from the sheep in the barn next door sounded like a crowd booing in the distance. Normally, their complaints would fall silent amid the laughter of the birds — the giggles, cackles, honks and quacks of the winged creatures drowning out the bleats and snorts from the mammals nearby at the Isanti County Fair. But this year, all the birds had to stay home.

When avian flu swept through the heartland this spring, poultry-rich Minnesota was particularly hard-hit. And not only commercial farmers had to pay the price. The state Board of Animal Health issued a directive in May banning all birds from this summer’s fairs — a restriction unlike any in recent memory.

As county fairs roll out across the state leading up to the State Fair at the end of this month, children who raise and study poultry for 4-H competitions are scrambling to find creative ways to stay involved. Instead of bringing birds to the fairs, they are making posters, taking quizzes, demonstrating showmanship based on pictures or using stuffed animals.

There also will be grilling and carcass competitions. “We’re going to have hundreds of grills lined up outside next to the coliseum,” said Wendy Huckaby, University of Minnesota Extension Center for Youth Development spokeswoman.

In other words, the only bird you’re going to see at the State Fair is going to be a toy one or a dead one.

And it’s not happening just in Minnesota.

At least 10 state fairs have banned birds this year, said Marla Calico, chief operating officer of the International Association of Fairs and Expositions, a member organization that has consulted with state and county fairs on how to revamp their poultry programs without the poultry.

At the Isanti County Fair, Nicole Mellum watched her 6-year-old son, Tanner Kafer, answer a judge’s questions and beamed as he posed for a photo with a stuffed chicken. But she wasn’t happy about the ban.

“Terrible,” she said. “You buy 26 birds so you can raise one for the county fair, and you can’t bring one of them.”

But Tanner had a brighter take. “It’s still OK,” he said, “because I like chickens.” And because of the rules, his mom explained, those chickens are still healthy.

A species hasn’t been completely banned from the Minnesota State Fair since a 1952 swine epidemic. (When swine flu broke out in 2009, kids were sent home, but the livestock stayed.)

In Isanti County, about an hour north of the Twin Cities, 100 kids dropped out of the poultry category between the announcement of the ban and the fair at the end of July. Those who stuck with it to compete for a slot at the State Fair walked into a barn full of empty cages.

“It was kind of sad” when the ban was announced, said Kayla Lenzmeier, 14, who with her sisters, Ella and Tiana, is a regular in the local and state poultry competitions.

To work within the confines of this year’s ban, Minnesota fair and 4-H organizers have had to stretch their creativity to come up with enough programming to keep kids in the poultry game. Joan Lenzmeier, the mother of Kayla, Ella and Tiana, has organized Isanti County 4-H poultry activities for more than a decade. She said she was “passionate” about creating a birdless program this year to keep the youngsters involved.

“I spent 11 years growing the kids,” she said. “I don’t want to lose them.”

Hope for the future

Despite the upheaval, poultry die-hards are optimistic that this year’s ban could be good for the youth program. State and county 4-H leaders believe the alternative programming will give future farmers an opportunity to delve deeper into the biology of their animals and to learn important lessons about biosecurity. And they say this year’s unusual circumstances shouldn’t affect future enrollment.

“Poultry is a very affordable project, and there’s a trend toward backyard flocks, and the natural movement,” said Brad Rugg, 4-H State Fair director at the University of Minnesota Extension. “I think it’s going to bounce back.”

Plus, there’s an incentive to stick with poultry. Winners typically earn $6 in all livestock categories. This year, poultry competitors who do a presentation on avian flu have a chance to take home up to $80 for acing their 4-H demonstrations, thanks to industry donations, Rugg said.

While leaders from youth programs, the fairs and the poultry industry all agree that taking the year off was the right decision for animal health, some are concerned that there could be far-flung consequences.

“Not being able to exhibit at the fair, there’s a gap in [the participants’] experience,” said Steve Olson, executive director of trade groups for Minnesota’s turkey growers and egg farmers. “Whether they go into poultry farming or work for a company in feed or equipment or the marketing side, the experience they have from working directly with birds is something that helps them long-term.”

There is an effect on the fair visitor experience, too. The space in the barn usually occupied by birds will be used for extra sheep, rabbits and goats.

“The sound, the color and even the panache of the poultry show, the feathers, the texture will be missing,” said Brienna Schuette, State Fair spokeswoman.

Visitors can still learn about poultry from expert presentations, the 4-H kids’ posters and other projects, and an area where fairgoers can fill out get-well postcards and mail them to farmers to “let those folks know they’re an important part of agriculture in Minnesota, and that we’re missing” them, Schuette said. Olson said his groups will provide a photo booth that can simulate a selfie with a bird, too.

Creativity takes flight

The 30 or so kids who remained in the poultry competitions in Isanti County had a slew of imaginative options never before seen at the fair, including a carcass competition in which they were judged on the quality of their slaughter.

It wasn’t hyperbole when show manager Paul Anderson announced the first carcass competition as “history in the making.” Four kids slid their hands into plastic gloves before removing their birds from zip-top bags and placing them on paper plates. Troy Bell, an Isanti butcher, looked over the birds and selected a winner and runner-up for the quality of their birds’ skin and moisture. Blood ran off the paper plates and onto the plastic tablecloth.

Bell next judged two ducks and, finally, a single goose that was so plump, he said, that he’d “put that in the showcase right now.” Aaron Christensen was the owner of the goose, which he’d lifted out of a cooler moments earlier. “Don’t shake my hand,” he said to the judge after being announced the obvious winner.

The Cloverbuds, 4-H’s youngest members, demonstrated care techniques on plush stuffed chickens, their combs and waddles in 4-H’s signature green.

The toy birds proved impossible not to play with. At the judge’s request to demonstrate how to remove a chicken from its cage, kindergartner Josiah Schlueter reached in and grabbed the toy by the foot, held it upside down, pulled at its comb and dropped it. By the time he got the OK to put it back, Josiah had formed a bond with the bird, naming it Fluffy.

“It’s a fair to remember,” judge Mark Peterson said afterward.

For the Lenzmeier sisters, who each credit 4-H with bringing them out of their shells and giving them lasting friendships, having a fair season without birds was welcome. First of all, they don’t have to bother washing the animals. And then there is that racket in the barns, where they usually spend the night — until the birds’ 4 a.m. cock-a-doodle-doos.

“We’ll get more sleep, and we won’t smell like wet chicken anymore,” Kayla said. “I don’t want to say it’s a drag, because it’s so fun, but it gets old, sometimes, having birds.”