Business & Economy

As fairgrounds turn 150 years old, 4-H Dairy Show brings young people to Tunbridge

Natalie Hill, 13, of Greensboro, grooms Daisey, her Jersey spring yearling before the start of the two-day State 4-H Dairy Show at the fairgrounds in Tunbridge on Sunday, Aug. 14. In her fourth year involved with 4-H, Hill was amongst 50 competitors who qualified for the event by winning on the county level. Photo by Geoff Hansen/Valley News

Editor’s Note: This story by Frances Mize first appeared in the Valley News on Aug. 15.

TUNBRIDGE — As the Tunbridge Fairgrounds turn 150 years old, members of 4-H clubs from all over the state gathered in an age-old tradition at the grounds on Sunday for the first portion of the annual two-day Vermont State 4-H Dairy Show.

Monday’s event — the “conformation” portion of the show — was set to judge the appearance of heifers and cows in three main categories: dairy strength, rear feet and legs, and frame. On Sunday contestants competed in the “fitting show,” in which they were judged on how well they presented themselves and their animals.

In individual age brackets, contestants ranging from 11- to 18-year-olds walked their cows slowly around a showing ring in front of an audience of about 30. As they demonstrate their handling skills, contestants are docked points if they dirty their all-white outfits or struggle to calm a heifer straining against her leash.

“You want to make the animal you’re handling to look her absolute best,” judge Betsy Bullard said to the 18-year-old age class that competed first on Sunday. “And this was an outstanding group.”

Keenan Thygesen, of Tunbridge, leads his Guernsey winter calf Heritage Brook AP Treats ETV from the judging ring after winning the showmanship class for the 18-year-olds group at the annual State 4-H Dairy Show at the Tunbridge fairgrounds on Sunday. At right is Karissa Livingston, of New Haven, who placed second. Photo by Geoff Hansen/Valley News

Dani Flint, 14, of Bethel, competed with her age-class in Sunday’s fitting. At last month’s county show, which included Windsor and Orange counties and was also held at the fairgrounds, Flint was awarded “reserve champion,” or second place, for her heifer Sweetie.

“She’s not very sweet though,” Flint said, mentioning the occasional kick.

Hoping to find success again, Flint returned with (not so) Sweetie this weekend to the statewide stage.

Flint hopes to build a life for herself working with cows, an aspiration fueled by her involvement in Orange County’s Middle Branch 4-H Club. 4-H, a national network of youth organizations with 12 local clubs in the Upper Valley, came to Vermont in 1949 to instruct young people in advancing farming techniques and its shows have been a consistent presence at the Tunbridge Fairgrounds since.

Now, in a struggling dairy industry — the number of dairy farms in Vermont has decreased by more than 80% in the last 50 years — 4-H continues to be a valuable resource for young people looking to grow in the business.

Keenan Thygesen, 18, of the Tunbridge 4-H “Clever Clovers,” earned first place in Sunday’s fitting competition after a summer competing all over the country. His family milked around 50 organic dairy cows until Thygesen was 8 years old, and when expenses started to outweigh benefits, they sold almost all of them — keeping just a few around for showing.

The competition process fostered Thygesen’s interest in the industry. Heading to the University of Minnesota in less than two weeks, Thygesen plans to study in the school’s agricultural sciences department and pursue a career in dairy.

“I can’t see myself doing anything else,” he said, sitting in front of the heifer he had just “clipped” as he prepared for that afternoon’s show. Clipping — a highly technical grooming procedure — takes time and skill, and managing a single heifer was a relief for Thygesen.

Earlier this summer at a competition in Ohio, he was in charge of clipping 23. “I didn’t get a lot of sleep those days.”

Thygesen sees the future of dairy as resting on the ability of young people like him to adapt to changing technology. “It’s important to learn from the old-timers, but it’s also important to learn alongside other kids who are passionate about advancement,” he said, adding that he thinks improvements in breeding and milking equipment could secure longevity for the industry. In 4-H, Thygesen has found peers excited for that future.

Rose Tarbell, of Middletown Springs, listens to feedback from judge Betsy Bullard, of Turner Maine, after placing third for showmanship with her Brown Swiss cow Emalynn in the 18-year-old group. Photo by Geoff Hansen/Valley News

Molly McFaun, 4-H education coordinator for Orange and Windsor counties, emphasized how unique the showing tradition is. “Out here are academic and athletic stars,” McFaun said, nodding to the 4-H members donned in all white as they walked their heifers around the show ring. “But this is also a chance for other kids to be stars too, and to compete and win.”

Thirty participants will be chosen from this weekend’s show to represent Vermont in the Eastern States Exposition in West Springfield, Massachusetts, in September.

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