This past week, my daughters brought their bred Hereford heifers to the county fair. In addition to being first-year livestock exhibitors at a new-to-us county fair, our girls had the only cattle in the 4-H livestock barn. Yes, the only beef or dairy cattle.

While we initially chuckled about the situation, it started to sink in that there’s an issue that needs to be addressed. We had hoped seven to 10 other 4-H families would exhibit beef at the county fair, but it didn’t work out for some families. There were several other families who brought pigs, goats, chickens, rabbits and a few alpacas.

To read more of Katie Pinke's The Pinke Post columns, click here.

Elizabeth Pinke, 13, showed livestock as a 4-H member for the first time at the Grand Forks (N.D.) County Fair on June 26, 2021. Pinke's bred Hereford heifer was one of two cattle entries in the livestock show. The other entry was her sister's heifer. (Laura Schweigert Photography, used with permission)
Elizabeth Pinke, 13, showed livestock as a 4-H member for the first time at the Grand Forks (N.D.) County Fair on June 26, 2021. Pinke's bred Hereford heifer was one of two cattle entries in the livestock show. The other entry was her sister's heifer. (Laura Schweigert Photography, used with permission)
Our girls cared for and walked their heifers for months, planning to compete against and learn from more experienced 4-H livestock members. While there were no other beef animals, we did connect with and learn from other livestock families and met new friends.

I was born and raised in Grand Forks County. My immigrant ancestors originally homesteaded on the western side of the county and my parents have owned and farmed that same land for decades.

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Elizabeth Pinke prepares her breeding beef Hereford heifer, "Addy," for her first livestock show on June 26, 2021. Pinke, a 4-H member in Grand Forks County, answered questions throughout the county fair from the public about beef and agriculture. (Laura Schweigert Photography, used with permission)
Elizabeth Pinke prepares her breeding beef Hereford heifer, "Addy," for her first livestock show on June 26, 2021. Pinke, a 4-H member in Grand Forks County, answered questions throughout the county fair from the public about beef and agriculture. (Laura Schweigert Photography, used with permission)
This is North Dakota — one of the last frontiers of wide-open spaces. While the town of Grand Forks is home to 60,000 people, 14,500 University of North Dakota students and an U.S. Air Force base, most of the county remains rooted in agriculture. According to the 2017 USDA Census of Agriculture:

  • Cropland makes up 93% of the county and 4% is pastureland.
  • There are 1,350 farmers and nearly 900 family farms.
  • Approximately 800,000 acres of land is in production agriculture.
  • Soybeans, wheat, corn, dry edible beans, sugar beets and potatoes lead crop acres.
  • The county is home to 17,000 head of beef cattle as well as a smattering of sheep and goats. There are no active dairy or hog farms listed.

Anika Pinke, 11, prepares her beef heifer, "Dominette," for the 4-H Livestock Show at the Grand Forks County Fair. Pinke and her sister both had their beef heifers stalled on Wednesday, June 23, showed the heifers on June 26 and went home on June 27 evening. They brought the only cattle to the county fair and hope other members join them in 4-H beef projects in the future. (Laura Schweigert Photography/ used with permission)
Anika Pinke, 11, prepares her beef heifer, "Dominette," for the 4-H Livestock Show at the Grand Forks County Fair. Pinke and her sister both had their beef heifers stalled on Wednesday, June 23, showed the heifers on June 26 and went home on June 27 evening. They brought the only cattle to the county fair and hope other members join them in 4-H beef projects in the future. (Laura Schweigert Photography/ used with permission)
I spent a few nights in a rented camper on the Grand Forks County fairgrounds brainstorming how to encourage more 4-H kids to bring production agriculture to the county fair. Those kids and their families already attend the fair in record numbers, but how can we inspire them to use the county fair as space, place and voice to make connections?

How can local farmers, agribusinesses and 4-H and FFA members connect with the non-ag county fair attendees? I fully understand generations of volunteers, fair board members, farmers and local ag organizations have been selflessly trying to address this issue for years across the country.

Now is the time, post-pandemic with a stronger interest in where food comes from than ever before, to make those connections at our local county fairs.

We can list out several reasons why kids (and their parents) aren’t bringing large animals to the county fairs like they used to — and many of those reasons are understandable.

All of us, farmers, ranchers, agriculturists, rural dwellers and even those “city” kids and their parents who participate in 4-H, are in this endeavor together. As a mom to two daughters who are new to showing cattle, I compare it to coaching a novice intramural sports team, playing for fun, learning the basics and soaking in the experience.

Some of you, experienced stock show families, are professionals. Keeping with the sports analogy, you’re at the level where the team travels to compete at a higher level with college recruiters following. I used to be intimidated by you. Now, I know we’re all in this together, as people who love agriculture, livestock and a way of life that needs a next generation.

Anika Pinke, 11, showed beef for the first time as a 4-H member in Grand Forks, N.D., on June 26, 2021, at the 4-H Livestock Show with the Grand Forks county fair. The bred Hereford heifers belong to Anika and her sister were the only cattle entries at the fair. (Laura Schweigert Photography, used with permission)
Anika Pinke, 11, showed beef for the first time as a 4-H member in Grand Forks, N.D., on June 26, 2021, at the 4-H Livestock Show with the Grand Forks county fair. The bred Hereford heifers belong to Anika and her sister were the only cattle entries at the fair. (Laura Schweigert Photography, used with permission)
We can find ways to change it and reverse a scary trend, a disconnect from production agriculture. If you’re reading this, we’re not the ones who will change the trend and conversations. It’s our kids, our grandkids, our neighbors’ kids, our 4-H clubs and our FFA chapters who will be able to get more people involved and engaged in agriculture.

As people gathered around the lone two beef cattle, staring at the (beautiful) Hereford heifers, often taking family selfie pictures with them, I asked, “Do you have any questions about the beef heifers?” I usually received a smile but very few engaging questions.

My girls, who are 11 and 13, however, created a different, stronger connection to the strangers in the barn. The questions flowed from parents and kids. After overcoming some nerves, they answered production ag and beef questions from visitors in their corner of the barn.

“We’ll be back next year!” I heard a few families say. And “Thank you so much for bringing your cows to the fair!”

Next year, I hope there are double-digit cattle numbers with kids showing from across the county. Our family plans to encourage others to exhibit livestock and work to get those involved with agriculture to volunteer at the county fair.

Pinke is the publisher and general manager of Agweek. She can be reached at kpinke@agweek.com, or connect with her on Twitter @katpinke.