County fairs: A Wisconsin tradition for more than 170 years

County fair season has officially returned in full force as friends, families and neighbors gather throughout the state to enjoy great food and celebrate Wisconsin’s agricultural heritage. Many of these fairs are long-running local traditions that have been operating for nearly two centuries, thanks to the time and talent lent by thousands of community volunteers across 72 counties.

UW-Extension continues to demonstrate its strong support for county fairs by connecting people with University of Wisconsin resources and strengthening relationships with exhibitors, donors, local organizations, elected bodies and the general public.

Extension colleagues extend their educational role to serve diverse audiences at county fairs in various ways­ — offering their academic expertise at workshops, providing counsel to fair boards and committees, or awarding a first-time exhibitor as a judge with a Blue Ribbon for his knowledge and care of his cat rescued from a fast-food parking lot in Door County.

Wisconsin 4-H Youth Development program volunteers are preparing young people for their successful futures in school, careers and communities. Youth and adult leaders work together to learn and practice crucial life skills by engaging in fun, hands-on fundraising activities like hosting goat yoga sessions to benefit the Winnebago County Goat Project or organizing trivia nights to replace old, unsafe pig pens at the Dodge County Fairgrounds.

Master Gardeners in various counties spent countless volunteer hours preparing their local fairgrounds for visitors to enjoy. The Kenosha-Racine Master Gardeners hope their gardening efforts will inspire fairgoers to try something new, like bathing with rosemary, lavender or eucalyptus herbs for their medicinal qualities.

An unexpected partnership

After both the Monroe and LaCrosse County Fairs lost their buyer for their fair milk, one local business devised a creative plan to prevent dumping the more than 5,000 pounds down the milkhouse drains. Quickly jumping into action, Nordic Creamery saw a unique economic opportunity for youth dairy exhibitors.

Al and Sarah Bekkum, owners of the Westby creamery, purchased the milk collected at the two county fairs and produced cheese curds for youth dairy exhibitors to sell throughout the week at both fairs. They were able to milk their cows at the fair in the morning, help with label development and sales of their product by selling the curds from the fair milk later the same day.

All proceeds were donated back to help fund youth dairy programs in both Monroe and LaCrosse county.

The story behind a pig named Roo

When Kim Katzenmeyer announced she was leaving teaching after 22 years, Waylon Klitzman was devastated. The Evansville High School sophomore had formed a special bond with his algebra teacher, often relying on her for support during the first few weeks of school.

Katzenmeyer left her job shortly after her young niece was diagnosed with neuroblastoma in order to dedicate her time volunteering full-time at Beat NB, a non-profit cancer research charity. That’s when Waylon decided he would help her family by selling one of his pigs, “Roo,” from his 4-H swine project at the Rock County Fair and donate the proceeds to fight against the common childhood cancer.

Despite having been involved with the local Evansville 4-H Club for five years, he nervously stood in front of bidders gathered in the auction ring. The bidding started fast and furious.

Within ten minutes, the pig was sold ­— four times and raised over $10,000 for Beat NB. Three different Janesville-area bidders in a row bought the pig, with prices surpassing $11 per pound at times, and donated the money from the sales back to Klitzman.

The heartwarming story captured national attention, including editors at The Washington Post and CNN. One editor summed up the tale of Waylon’s heroic hog: “It defies logic. It’s not traditional agribusiness; it’s traditional Middle-American goodwill.”

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