The Journal of Extension -

February 2011 // Volume 49 // Number 1 // Commentary // 1COM1

Commentaries conform to JOE submission standards and provide an opportunity for Extension professionals to exchange perspectives and ideas.

Fairs and Other Exhibitions. Have We Really Thought This Through?

"The Fair" is deeply woven into the very DNA of Extension. Investment of time and other resources in fairs by Extension personnel makes it arguably the largest single program in all of Extension. Perhaps it is so much a part of our program that we seldom think to examine our involvement or evaluate why we do what we do in regard to our role(s) in conducting those events. This article questions the remarkable dearth of information regarding the actual value of the fair in regard to youth development as opposed to other means of fulfilling our mission.

Donald J. Nicholson
4 H Youth Development Specialist
University of Missouri Extension
Palmyra, Missouri


County fairs, local fairs, state fairs, achievement days—regardless of what they are called in your area—most county and/or district-level Extension programs have them. On the surface, they can look and feel very different from place to place. However, if you look more deeply, you'll notice that very common and predictable themes play out.

In your area, the fair may be a large event with concerts, tractor pulls, livestock auctions, and the like. Or your fair may be a "smaller" event, centered mostly around 4 H exhibits—with or without animals. Regardless of the name or format of the exhibition you find yourself working with, for the sake of this discussion, let's just call it "The Fair."

In talking about the fair, it would be simplistic to talk about the fair as merely an annual event. More accurately, it is the fair "process" that takes place throughout the entire year that must be understood and considered. No fair takes place without uncountable hours of committee meetings, project meetings, parking lot discussions, phone calls, traditions to manage, letters written, and board meetings that take place throughout the year—many discussions dealing with issues that go on and have gone on for many years.

There is no doubt that "The Fair" is deeply woven into the very DNA of Extension. Perhaps it is so much a part of our program we never think to programmatically or administratively examine our involvement or evaluate why we do what we do in regard to our role(s) in conducting those events.

The amount of time and other resources devoted to conducting fairs by 4 H agents, livestock agents, county administrators, paraprofessionals, support staff, and other faculty and staff adds up quickly. Investment of time and resources in local and state fairs by Extension personnel makes it arguably the largest single program in all of Extension.

Where Is the Research?

Fairs are obviously very important to many people. So important that Extension seems to have rarely questioned whether the investment of staff time is really "worth it" or not. In fact, there seems to be very little published evidence regarding the value of the fair process and the value to young people in terms of life skill development. One of the reasons for this apparent lack of research may be that fairs are so complicated! One example of recent research is a study conducted by Arnold, Meinhold, Skubinna, and Ashton, (2007). A very few other articles make contributions to philosophy and need for research regarding the overall value of the fair, such as the contribution by Diem and Rothenburger (2001).

There has been a surprisingly small smattering of research to measure the developmental outcomes for young people when we reflect upon the depth and investment they and their families make in the fair. One might assume (and many people do), that exhibiting livestock, for example, for many days or at many shows during a year is a more valuable and richer experience for young people than "merely" exhibiting a plate of cookies. This may indeed not be true at all. Anecdotally at least, there seems to be no connection between the number of fairs a member attends or the number of days spent exhibiting and the level of development in a particular young person in regard to them becoming more caring, competent, contributing individuals as adults.

There are some general presumptions with which many or most Extension faculty and staff might agree based upon years of practice.

  • There is ample anecdotal evidence on the value of fairs (from people who really like the experience).

  • "The Fair" is woven into our organizational and community fabric.

  • Many Extension faculty and staff members gain self-fulfillment through their own immersion in the fair process.

  • Extension seems to gain copious quantities of "street-cred" through facilitation of the fair process. And, perhaps, gain a bit of political capital as well.

  • The fair may create social capital within the 4 H and Extension organizations.

  • The fair is a useful event toward which project work is often focused and through which project and leadership development can be focused. The fair is an opportunity for young people and adults to exhibit their accomplishments, form friendships, develop independence, and demonstrate mastery.

  • Young people sometimes cite that exhibiting at the fair grants positive public exposure that is usually only accorded successful school athletes.

Have We Really Thought This Through?

In retrospect, it is puzzling that Extension in general and the 4 H program specifically quietly and passively allowed such a large investment of staff and other resources to evolve with apparently little thought or consideration in most cases. That commitment to a singular event in almost every county is substantial.

If we were to believe our own press releases, we'd sleep well—confident that our time and energy devoted to conducting the County Fair, District Fair, or State Fair is steeped in research-based information and philosophy. The truth is, there is a remarkable dearth of information regarding the actual value of the county fair or state fair in regard to youth development. And yet, most forge ahead—with little thought or introspection.

The easy way out of this whole discussion would be to simply say that the fair is just one component of an overall youth development program. In a general sense, that may be true. Yet the actual Extension mission in many cases seems to be to merely conduct a smooth-running fair with as little conflict as possible.

Where Are We Going?

What is the 5-year or 10-year goal of Extension in regard to our role, goals, and mission with the fairs in your local or state Extension program? What is the research agenda and intention regarding fairs in your state? If there is a stated or tacit expectation by program leaders and administrators that local and state Extension staff continue with a high investment in facilitating and conducting fairs, are the appropriate resources, management tools, and programmatic supports made available at a level commensurate with the actual time and other resources expended by staff in the field?

Of course, taking a close look at Extension's investment in fairs could call forth the wrath of commodity groups and the public in general—those who believe that Extension putting on a good local fair is a large part of why they support Extension in the first place! Producers of show-stock and others who have a deep financial stake in 4 H and FFA exhibition opportunities may not look kindly on Extension asking the hard questions—regardless of the conclusions that may eventually be reached.

Yet, if Extension is to be true to its research-based mission (USDA, 2010), we cannot overlook the need to be thoughtful and intentional in examining the true value of fairs and our appropriate role in them beyond simply maintaining comfortable traditions that are popular to some. Are the procedures used and the time invested by Extension truly guided by research-based information? Could the same educational content be more effectively delivered in other ways with a similar or lesser investment of time and resources?

On the other hand, it may be that Extensions investment in such events has been a remarkable, resounding success for nearly 100 years or so. At present, we act as though that is indeed the case, with little evidence to support that. Fairs are popular, to be sure. But are they important? Perhaps they are.

With tight Extension budgets in states throughout the country, now is the perfect time to critically examine our role in fairs, festivals, achievement days, and similar events to make sure that we as Extension staff and the public as a whole are getting the best bang for the buck. Now is the perfect time to be thoughtful and intentional and begin significant efforts to measure and prove (or disprove) the value of Extension's role in perhaps the largest single investment in all of Extension.


Arnold, M. E., Meinhold, J. L., Skubinna, T., & Ashton, C. (2007). The motivation for and developmental benefits of youth participation in county 4 H fairs: A pilot study. Journal of Extension, [On-line], 45(6) Article 6RIB5. Available at:

USDA: About us-Extension (2010). Retrieved October 15, 2010 from:

Diem, K. G., & Rothenburger, L. (2001). The county fair—What has it done for you, lately? Journal of Extension [On-line], 39(4) Article 4IAW1. Available at:


Commentary Discussion

Views expressed in this Commentary and the accompanying discussion forum do not necessarily reflect those of the Extension Journal Inc. board of directors or the Journal of Extension editor. Journal of Extension Commentary discussion forums remain open through two issues of the journal. Anonymous comments are not permitted. All comments are screened before publication for derogatory content—disagreement is acceptable, but comments should reflect a respectful exchange about the relevant issue(s).

Good Question Don

It is obvious you have put a lot of thought into the question. For all who belive their intuitions are always correct, please check out: The video will make a strong point, the book is a good read too.
Submitted On: 02/24/2011
You have brought out some good questions. Some fairs are trying to be more educational. What is hard to measure is the political value of Extension's resource input into the fair. Our challenge is to use the venue of the fair to provide unique educational opportunities mingled in with the fun and mandated shows or displays of exhibits.
Submitted On: 02/24/2011

Excellent commentary

Natalie Carroll
What an excellent commentary.Don wrote a thought provoking article. I hope we give the question of fairs serious consideration and start the evaluation process.Regardless of how it comes out... it needs to be done.
Submitted On: 02/24/2011
Wow, I was hoping for an answer instead of the same old question posed in a different way. My thoughts are instead of asking the same question, how about attempting to answer it. I have been in extension for more than 20 years and this question has been asked and asked again.
Submitted On: 02/25/2011
Yes, the question has been asked before perhaps--but whose job IS it to get busy with trying to answer it? It is the responsiblity of us ALL to get busy with that . . . isn't it?
Submitted On: 02/28/2011

Wake Up Extension

Who is going to fight for Extension's reason to exist if not the inter-generational customers who come and participate in the Fair. 4-H was on the chopping block in my county and the "Fair" 4-H families saved the program. It was just one commissioners vote from being gone. It is time that Extension recognizes and appreciates it's loyal customers rather than searching for a purpose. If you do not have customers, know what they want and how to meet their needs, you cease to exist. I see a lot of Extension Agents being replaced by the internet because they have programs with no "repeat" customer support. I do not need a research study to see that my time at the Fair is well spent. All I had to do was see the Commissioner's Chambers packed out with over 100 4-H customers saving their program.
Submitted On: 03/02/2011

Community Building

Don't forget to look beyond the staff investment of time and resources and its cost. Look also, at the community building process that takes place around a fair. At least in our state fairs are not managed by Extension people but rather by the many volunteers that work all year planning and executing an event for their neighbors. They also bring many of those neighbors into the development process in a way that few other activities can accomplish. They cross school district and political unit lines to accomplish a few days of joining in one activity. They provide a few days of release from the day to day jobs and cares so many experience.

I spend almost no time at fair preparation and execution today; far less than I did twenty years ago, but I still see their value in the community and the chance for them to see us face to face and to interact with them in a setting in which I can often learn more of what is on their mind that may be a programming opportunity for me.

Ask me for a little time evaluating 4H'ers and interacting with their families and I will see it as an investment worth a bit of my time.
Submitted On: 03/04/2011

Good points, here are others

What about the economic impact of the fair? What about the leadership skills that fair leaders develop? What about the educational opportunity for a community that is quickly turning from rural to suburban and many citizens (youth and adult) do not know that carrots grow in the ground, that not all cattle are "cows", or that cattle with horns are not all bulls, etc.
Submitted On: 03/04/2011

Exhibiting - Learning Method

Ina Linville
I think we (mostly adults)sometimes lose sight of the wonderful opportunity for authentic learning creating an exhibit is for a child. There is research on using exhibition as a learning methodology. It just does not have the 4-H brand on it.

“Exhibiting the capacity to use skills and concepts in an appropriate way --- that is the hallmark of an emerging understanding (Gardner, 1991, pg. 204).”

Authentic assessment strategies accompany the 4-H project work. Project Records provide a portfolio for the member to demonstrate setting goals, developing a plan of action and self-assessment of learning. Project Judging provides an opportunity to demonstrate knowledge of industry standards by placing products or case situations in ranked order according to criteria. In addition, 4-H members provide oral reasons to a judge to defend their rank order. Members are provided feedback by an official providing the correct placing and then models their critical thinking by giving their reasons for the official ranked order. 4-H members Exhibit products or artifacts produced in their project learning experience. Authentic feedback is provided in through Conference Judging. A judge and member confer on the project exhibit item. This exchange should yield what the member did, how the member completed the project, what the member would differently and plans for next year. The judge provides the member feedback on approximation of mature practice. Another authentic assessment tool is Skill-A-Thons (CGTV, 1993; Collins, Brown, Duguid, 1989; Wiggins, 1993). Problem situations are presented to members and they actually demonstrate fixing the problem or describe their problem-solving approach. Feedback is provided to the member on their demonstration of mastery.

Brown, J. S., Collins, A., and Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18(1), 32-42.
CGTV, Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt. (1993). Anchored instruction and situated cognition revisited. Educational Technology, March 52-67.

Gardner, H. (1991). The unschooled mind. How children learn and how schools should teach. New York: HarperCollins.

Wiggins, G. (1993). Assessment: Authenticity, context and validity, Phi Delta Kappan, 200 – 214.
Submitted On: 03/04/2011
I suspect that data on this issue is being collected and/or available individually, but a central data collection point and common format may be needed throughout the state and nation.
Submitted On: 03/05/2011

Fair is Community Development

Fair is community development (CD). Extension, for the most part sees CD as bringing businesses to town to make a better dollar, building leadership skills in our govering bodies, bringing groups together to work toward a common goal. FOR adults.
County Fair is CD at its best because it also has the youth component (which it is centered around). This youth piece is like a "spiritual growth in kids" it gives them a sence of "community". Can you measure that? Truly measure? Good luck! Do we need to measure that? I don't know. yes Extension is needing supporters. But the hard data you can use is volunteer hours (value) compared to paid staff hours. Their are negative things learned at fair. They are also learned in life too. Fair is Community Development at its best!
Submitted On: 04/08/2011
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