The Barden family arrives at the Elbert County Fairgrounds' steel-framed ag building before 8 a.m. July 25, setting up folding camp chairs and fashioning a makeshift temporary kennel out of a multi-paneled, freestanding pet gate.
With Lilly sprawled on her beige dog bed and the white, three-ring record book chronicling the past year of her care, training and goals submitted for judging, there was not much for either her or her handler to do but wait for organizers to ready the ring for the first of 2,274 4-H events at the 80th Elbert County Fair.
Lilly does not live up to the hyperactive reputation of a typical Sheltie. At 5 years old, she is calm, does not suffer shyness around strangers, and like many of her fellow competitors, she is a family pet or ranch dog recruited into service as a yearlong 4-H project.
Her owner, trainer and best friend is 14-year-old Olivia Barden. Olivia, slated to begin high school at Legend in Parker this fall, is carrying on a 4-H family legacy spanning three generations. Her grandfather, who was on hand to watch her compete, was an extension agent in Lamar, so it is not surprising that Olivia's mother, now an engineer, grew up cultivating her own 4-H traditions.
Olivia and Lilly's objective for the weekend is to receive, at minimum, a qualifying score in three canine events: obedience, rally obedience, and showmanship that will advance them to the Colorado State Fair in late August; their hope is to take home the overall Grand Champion ribbon. But things are running a little behind schedule, and Olivia and Lilly are scheduled to go last, so they wait.
The 4-H program derives its name from the pledge taken by its members, “I pledge my head to clearer thinking, my heart to greater loyalty, my hands to larger service, and my health to better living, for my club, my community, my country, and my world.”
Developed at the end of the 19th century as an educational outreach from the USDA and later from researchers at land-grant universities, 4-H was created to educate members of farming communities, encouraging them to embrace and adopt modern agricultural practices. The researchers found by engaging the youths in these communities and having them perform experiments, they were more willing to adopt them.
Today, 4-H promotes community service, leadership and overall youth development in 90,000 clubs with more than 6.5 million members nationwide. The organization boasts that “its members are four times more likely to make contributions to their communities, two times more likely to be civically active and two times more likely to participate in science, engineering and computer technology programs during out-of-school time.”
Locally, the county fair is the capstone for 352 Elbert County 4-H'ers, like Olivia, who have dedicated a year in preparation for events ranging from shooting sports such as archery to sewing competitions and animal entries ranging from rabbits to market beef.
Over the years, the number of students enrolling in 4-H statewide has declined. Shelia Kelly, extension director and agent for 4-H Youth Development at the extension office in Kiowa, attributes two factors contributing to the decline: a sluggish economy and a focus on quality recruiting rather than quantity.
Olivia Barden and Lilly represent the changing face of 4-H as demographics in Elbert County change from a traditionally rural agricultural community to an increasingly urban environment, especially in the western end of the county.
According to Kelly, these changes are resulting in a significant increase in entrants for smaller animals such as dogs and especially rabbits in place of large stock animals, because they are cheaper to raise and more practical to care for in residential neighborhoods.
Once the ribbons have been have been awarded, there are plenty of reasons for 4-H competitors to stick around after or the public to visit the fairgrounds in Kiowa through Aug. 3.
“The fair is put on by county government as a celebration for the county,” Kelly said. emphasizing the safe environment. “You can bring your kids and let them run around.”
In addition to the 4-H events, more than 123 Elbert County residents have entered into Open Class General Exhibits to display their skills in arts and crafts or demonstrate their culinary abilities. In addition to these friendly contests, draws to the fairgrounds over the weekend are the Big Time Bucking Horse Futurity, a ranch rodeo and 4-H Family Fair Dance.
Olivia finally walks Lilly into the competition ring at 11:35 a.m. and goes to work, healing her on and off leash, commanding her around and over obstacles. Over two days, the two of them compete in three canine events, scoring a total of 573.5 points out a possible 600, advancing to the State Fair as the Elbert County 4-H Dog Obedience Grand Champions.