Columbia County’s Fairest advocates for farm education
It’s Saturday, and a threat of rain has held off as dozens of youths, mostly from Columbia County 4-H Clubs, spruce up the fairgrounds in Portage for the Columbia County Fair’s 167th annual edition that opens Wednesday and runs through Sunday in Portage.
One of the workers is wearing a tiara and a purple T-shirt with the slogan “Team Fairest.”
She’s Sarah Daentl, and she’s the reigning Fairest of the Fair.
“I’ve been up on the ladder, cleaning the high stuff,” said the 20-year-old University of Wisconsin-La Crosse student from Portage.
In Building 7 where she’s working, Daentl will show her painting, printmaking and other art. But the former member of the North Scott 4-H Club has aged out of the junior exhibition, so she’s showing in the open class.
However, this year Daentl isn’t showing cattle, as she has since early childhood. That’s partly because her duties as Fairest – including handing out ribbons to the winners of various livestock exhibits – will keep her too busy.
Daentl grew up on the farm. Many farms, actually.
Her father, Bill Daentl, breeds cows, and that meant the family moved around from farm to farm, where she came to love the sounds, sights, sounds and smells of agriculture.
A year ago, she earned the American Degree for agricultural excellence from FFA.
Although Daentl majors in art and psychology at UW-La Crosse, and aspires to be an art therapist, she doesn’t want to get too far away from the farm, ever.
“I need agriculture in my life,” she said. “I like to get my hands dirty, and I love animals.”
Furthermore, she said, the Columbia County Fair is, and should remain, primarily about agriculture.
Engaging “city people” in the fair should primarily entail educating them about where their food comes from, and about what farmers do and why they do it, Daentl said.
Take, for example, an encounter she experienced with a Columbia County fairgoer a few years ago.
Daentl was exhibiting a Holstein cow in the dairy show, and an animal rights activist confronted her, asking why she treated her cow in this way.
This, recalled Daentl, was her reply:
“I love this animal. I would not mistreat it. I’m here because I’m very proud of this animal, and what she can do. I treat her well, and she treats me well.”
Daentl was 7 when she showed her first dairy calf at the Richland County Fair open show.
“Her name was Emma, and she was so cute,” she said.
At age 9, she started showing Holsteins as a 4-H member in the Columbia County Fair’s dairy show.
She was in Portage High School’s FFA when she switched to showing beef cattle, mostly crossbred and Angus – requiring her to learn the difference between the way judges view dairy cattle (for their milk-producing traits) and beef cattle (for the quality of their meat).
Daentl said young exhibitors don’t need to be “farm kids” to show an animal at the fair. Many of the rabbit and poultry exhibitors don’t live on farms, and others are farm kids – sometimes very young farm kids – who are introduced to animal showmanship in the small-animal judging competition, then later show sheep, goats, swine or cattle.
But Daentl said she’s living proof that a person need not raise or exhibit animals to participate in the fair, or in 4-H.
Art is her passion, she said, and 4-H gave her an opportunity to hone her artistic skills and present her work to judges – not all of whom shared her views on her work.
For example, one year she showed landscape photography, with some of her images taken from unusual angles. When the judge asked her to pick her favorite photos, she pointed to the ones with what she thought offered innovative viewpoints. The judge, however, said he liked the photos with more conventional angles.
“That’s just what it is – it’s all opinion,” Daentl said. “Maybe you get just a third-place ribbon, but somebody comes up to your work and says it’s amazing.”