4-H Leader: “92 counties, 92 ways of doing things”

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – A national health concern is impacting the 92 county fairs along with the Indiana State Fair. Avian flu is responsible for killing more than 40 million birds across the country, leading to a poultry ban at all the summer fairs.

The majority of flu cases are in Minnesota, Iowa and Arkansas.

“This is the first time in a long time that we’ve had this problem. Avian flu is all over the world. It just hasn’t come to the U.S. until here recently,” Whitley County 4-H Youth Extension Educator David Addison said. “There is no problem with human consumption of either the meat and or eggs. It’s the chickens that actually get sick and die, not the humans.”

While there are only 77 cases in Indiana, fair officials call the ban a smart and necessary move.

“It’s kind of disappointing for the kids because they won’t be able to show people what they’ve learned in the project, but it’s for the safety of our commercial breeders and our backyard flocks so that this doesn’t spread and cause more problems than we currently have,” Addison said.

Livestock competitions play a major role at county fairs. 4-H members work for months, if not years, to prepare for the shows. Fair officials said while the news is disappointing, it also provides a good learning opportunity.

“Keep in mind, we’re trying to teach life skills to youth, and those life skills can be learned regardless of whether they’re showing a bird or not showing a bird,” Addison said. “This is just one of those skills that they’re learning because it’s one of those things where you’re learning that sometimes things don’t work out the way you hoped they would.”

Around 110 students are scheduled to do poultry projects at the Whitley County Fair in July.

“They’re raising chickens, ducks, turkeys, and other types of birds,” Addison said. “During the fair itself, they bring the birds in and show them to the judge and show the judge what they’ve learned and how well the bird’s been prepared for the fair.”

Due to the ban, Whitley County is modifying its competition.

“We’re going to do a virtual show for the kids so they get to do something. We’re also doing an egg show, so they can bring in a half dozen eggs and show them and be judged. We’re still going to do the showmanship part of our 4-H program where they actually get to demonstrate their ability to show the animals,” Addison said. “We bring the chickens in from a single source and they go back either to the single source or to be processed. We can bring those chickens into the fairgrounds on a one time opportunity to show and that’s it.”

Other counties won’t have any live birds whatsoever.

“92 counties, 92 ways of doing things. Some are doing posters. Some are doing virtual shows like us. It just depends on the county. It will depend on the way they are going to do it. We’re sharing information back and forth between the counties on some of the ideas and things we’re thinking about doing,” Addison said.

The Adams County Fair is also doing posters. That’s where graduating senior Alaina Richert has showed poultry the last nine years.

“4-H means a lot to me. I’ve really learned how to plan, how to do projects, how to care for all my animals,” Richert said. “I had all my birds lined up that I was going to take for my final year and obviously, I was going to go all out since it was my last chance to show poultry at our fair.”

Richert called the ban disappointing, but said it’s not worth the risk.

“Poultry is such a huge industry in our state and I would just feel terrible if because of our fair, the bird flu got into one of those huge operations that are nearby our fairgrounds,” Richert said. “Fortunately, poultry showmanship is probably 99-percent knowledge-based, so you don’t have to have a live bird there in order to do showmanship.”

While this is her last year for the competition that’s taught her so much, she says this ban is teaching her another important life lesson.

“I think this is a classic example of you really being able to adapt and yes, it’s disappointing, but learning to deal with that disappointment and a lot of people have their birds already. So, they’ll still get the experience of caring for those birds. They just won’t have the final exciting show day to show off their work that they’ve done with their animals,” Richert said. “I think that’s very important to learn how to adapt to different situations and how to deal with disappointment because it’s easy to avoid it but it can’t be avoided all the time.”

Fair officials expect the ban to last at least through the summer, if not through the end of the year. 

“We’ll probably go as long as they think there is a viable threat to the poultry industry in the Midwest,” Addison said.

Here’s a look at what counties in Northeast Indiana are doing for the poultry competitions at their fairs:

  • Adams: Posters for poultry demonstrations
  • DeKalb: The county fair isn’t until the end of September, so leaders are still discussing options in case the ban is lifted before then.
  • Huntington: Posters for poultry demonstrations
  • Noble: Options not yet released
  • Steuben: Poultry quiz bowl
  • Wells: Posters for poultry demonstrations and possible other options not yet released
  • Whitley: Posters for poultry demonstrations, egg show, & showmanship with live birds

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