PORT TOWNSEND — Layla Franson experienced two unsettling events during the Covid lockdown: the death of her cat and the death of her horse.
The animals were not just the 15-year-old’s companions, but crucial to her involvement in 4H, the Washington State University administered youth program that is a centerpiece of county fairs across the state that were shuttered during the pandemic.
This weekend both Franson and the Jefferson County Fair are back for the first time since 2019 — Franson, with a new horse, Jackson, and two new cats, and the fair after two years during which its fairground was primarily known for its large homeless encampment, rather than as a showcase for the area’s agricultural heritage.
Friday was the first day of the fair at 4907 Landes St.
It continues today and Sunday. Gates open at 8 a.m. Gates close at 8 p.m. today and at 6 p.m. Sunday.
Single-day passes are $8 for adults 18 to 64, $7 for active duty military, $6 for seniors 65 and older and youth 13-17 and $2 for children 6 to 12. Children 5 and under are admitted free.
Vendors, demonstrations, 4H activities are set throughout the fair. Today will also feature draft horse pulls at 3 p.m.; 4-by-4 mud drags are scheduled at 11:30 a.m. Sunday.
For Franson, returning to the fair and 4H competition this year was a return to normalcy.
“It definitely feels nice to get back into things,” said Franson, who will be a sophomore at Chimacum High School in the fall. “I was debating whether or not I wanted to get a new horse after my old horse died, but I’m glad I did.”
But Franson is one of the few Jefferson County 4H club members who returned to this year’s fair. There were just seven competitors in her showmanship class — down from 20 in 2019. The number was so small that all three 4H age divisions — junior, intermediate and senior — appeared in the ring at the same time.
Overall 4H membership is down in the county as it is across the state, said Sarah Pederson, the Jefferson County 4-H coordinator.
In addition to the horse division, beef and dairy, poultry, rabbits, cats, small livestock like sheet and goats and home economics have seen declines. Some clubs, like dog, archery and reptiles have not been revived.
A great deal of the blame can be laid on Covid, Pederson said.
“Most of the 4H clubs in Washington were hugely impacted by the pandemic,” Pederson said.
“Retention of volunteers was a problem, and that impacted the number of kids who can participate.”
4H volunteers were required to show proof of vaccination and many simply chose to step away from the program instead, Pederson said.
Chris Franson, a longtime 4H leader and Layla Franson’s grandmother, said other issues contributed to the decline in membership as well.
“We were unable to hold any of our events, like horse shows and fun days where we had games and costume contests, and we didn’t have seminars or horse camps,” Chris Franson said. “The more events you have, the more kids who want to join.”
In addition, Franson said, some 4H members aged out of the program (which is capped at 18 years-old) and others simply lost interest. The simple fact that the fair wasn’t held for two years was another hit to the horse program.
“The fair is the culmination to the year for 4H,” Chris Franson said. “Without the fair, it isn’t that fun.”
This fall Jefferson County 4H will be actively recruiting volunteers, reaching out to the community to introduce it to the program and offering volunteer workshops Pederson said.
“We need to do a better job at promoting ourselves as an organization that promotes positive youth development and adult mentoring,” Pederson said. “It’s not just livestock and cooking and sewing.”
Talia Sodano, 17, said that she never considered quitting 4H even when club meetings were held on Zoom and there was no Jefferson County Fair to prepare for with her 26-year-old Palomino mare, Zipper.
“It was definitely hard not being able to compete, but my heart has always been set on being in 4H,” said Sodano, 17, who will be a senior at Chimacum High School this fall.
“This kind of feels like my first year at the fair, so I’m kind of nervous, but in a good way.”
For information, see jeffersoncountyfairgrounds.com.
Reporter Paula Hunt can be reached at [email protected]