"Can't hardly miss it": Tradition and pride at the Yuma County Fair
It’s not that you can’t gorge yourself on funnel cake and cotton candy at the Yuma County Fair. There is a midway, after all, with rides and games and all the usual amusements.
But that’s not the main event herein the county with the second biggest agricultural production in the state. At this fair, the center of gravity is really the grandstand and the show rings, where experts judge livestock raised by Yuma County’s children. And everyone’s attention is focused on the county’s most important product: the next generation of farmers.
Lea Richardson, 17, of Yuma, Colorado, is one of that next generation.
She has been showing pigs and cattle at the fair for the last 10 years and hopes to continue the family tradition of agricultural production. “I was raised on a farm,” she said. “My dad showed when he was a kid, too.”
Dean Wingfield was once a fair kid himself. “This is the 70th fair since I was born, and I'm thinking I've been to 69 fairs,” he said recently, perched on a shady bench at the Yuma County Fairgrounds.
Wingfield has lived in Yuma County his entire life and was even a county commissioner for 24 years. He said the Yuma Fair has a special focus. “Compared to some of the counties around Yuma County, it's always been kind of youth-oriented,” he explained. “It's more about the kids and their livestock judging and their Home Ec stuff. And it’s so we could let the kids have their year's bounty, come to the fair and show what they done.”
Late summer is county fair season around the country and in Colorado, and the festivities are finally returning to normal this third summer of the pandemic. In the coming weeks, Lincoln and Routt counties, among others, will have their fairs, and it all builds up to the state fair at the end of this month in Pueblo. But in Yuma, the focus is on the farm and future farmers.
The future farmers were busy at this year’s swine show, where Kathy Christianson showed up to support her grandson. “At 12, he won Grand Champion with his pig one year. I'm bragging a little bit,” she said.
Christianson’s grandson and all the other pig kids have worked hard all spring and summer raising their animals up from piglets.
After all the ribbons have been awarded, the kids will auction off their animals at a public sale where supporters often bid prices up to multiples of market value. According to Christianson, “Yuma is really, really good about getting into their pockets and giving to these kids. you hope you make sale up there because that's pretty good college fund money,” she said.
Last year, those kids made sales totaling over $300,000. This year, officially, numbers are still trickling in, but the kids are on track to bring in over half a million dollars. Fair staff takes a tiny commission, but the kids get to keep almost all of the proceeds.
More than college money, the kids are learning to carry on the work of agricultural production. JoLynne Midcap is the 4H extension agent in Yuma County, where she coordinates roughly 200 local kids. “They are they're being raised and trained to feed everybody who is listening to this right now,” she said.
According to Midcap, working on 4H projects and then exhibiting them at the fair is how the culture and skills of agricultural life are passed down through the generations. “4H is so historically ingrained in this community. Everybody's grandparents and great grandparents did it,” she said.
The kids raise livestock and crops. They learn leatherworking, baking, sewing, food preservation and even robotics because somebody has to be able to understand the circuitry of modern farm equipment. Then they come to the fair in August to show off their developing skills and bask in the glow of community recognition.
“It's a lifestyle,” Midcap explained. “I'm going to take something off my ranch, or I'm going to bring something from my field. And my grandpa taught me how to grow it. You're actually showing and exhibiting a piece of your heart. Everything has been passed down, and now you're showing it off here in Yuma.”
Organizers say the county loses money on the fair each year. But to hear Dean Wingfield tell it, a straight accounting would completely miss the true value of the Yuma County Fair. “It's something [that] kind of gets in your blood,” he said, reminiscing about county fairs past. “Probably the first combine I ever saw with a cab on it was at the fair. I was at the fair the first time I saw some breeds of cattle. It was something that was new for country kids out here — something you really enjoyed and you can't hardly miss it.”
Rae Solomon produced this story as part of the America Amplified initiative using community engagement to inform and strengthen local, regional and national journalism. America Amplified is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.