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The Crook County FFA, 4-H clubs have moved forward despite pandemic restrictions that prevent meeting in person

CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Youth from the FFA and 4-H clubs were still able to partipcate in the Crook County Fair, despite health-related restrictions.

Crook County has long taken pride in its "can-do" attitude and the way people pull together in a crisis.

Nowhere is this spirit more evident than in two of the largest local youth organizations – Crook County 4-H and the Crook County Future Farmers of America (FFA) chapter – during the current COVID-19 pandemic. For a year, the big question has been, "How can we continue to function if we can't meet in person?" It turns out that with a lot of planning, commitment and flexibility, they've been able to continue just fine in many respects.

Dan McNary is the high school faculty advisor to the local FFA chapter, and as with much of society, social interaction for him has gone digital.

"It's been a huge challenge to modify how we do things and to modify our events to a virtual situation," McNary said. "I've had to pivot a lot how I do things and have had to learn right alongside the kids."

But it should be easier for today's tech-raised students, right? Not so, according to Mason Puckett, FFA chapter secretary.

"Even though we all have our phones, you'd think it would be really easy," he said, "but we get so busy being wrapped up in all these COVID restrictions and the different ways we have to do things. It's a lot harder to communicate."

Still, Puckett said they've been able to accomplish more this last year than he thought they could.

The FFA chapter meets monthly, and due to its association with the school district has been able to have their last three meetings in person. Members also have limited contact with their peers during the regular school days. Not so with the 4-H program.

"It's been really hard on leaders and kids," said 4-H leader Daisy Johnson, "especially first-year kids who've never done it before."

Johnson leads steer, swine and rabbit clubs, and said the virtual situation is hardest for those kids new to the program and new to agriculture. And right now, when they're finishing up their record books, it's a serious challenge for the newbies.

"That (record book) is one of the hardest things to explain over the phone," she said. "When you can't be there for that hands-on experience, it's sometimes harder for them to succeed."

One important aspect of both programs is the social interaction and camaraderie between kids.

"There's a lot of friendships that are built there. That's been really hard for them," Johnson added. "They definitely miss their 4-H kids."

David White is the state's 4-H Outdoor Education and Recreation Director and is also serving as the Crook County Interim 4-H Educator. It's important to him, he explained, to provide youth with positive development and an environment in which they can thrive. COVID has made this difficult, and has perhaps even created "toxic stress," which can affect their mental development.

"For some, their environment has been their household," White said. He acknowledged that socializing via Zoom and other platforms can be done, but that "talking and conversing with somebody in two dimensions is not the same as it is in three dimensions."

The annual fair, during which animals are judged, projects scrutinized and awards given, is a much-anticipated event for both programs, and White shared concern about maintaining youth participation given the challenges of putting on a fair in a pandemic environment. He said kids normally remain interested based on how the previous year culminated and then decide whether or not to invest in projects.

He's optimistic.

"We put on a great fair last year, and I think the kids, the adults and the leaders understand that we will go to great efforts to make that happen (again)."

Still, 4-H membership is down about 40 kids this year from a total of about 800, White noted, but he thinks membership will grow. Puckett, on the other hand, said their FFA chapter is up 10 students.

"We've had the biggest growth in the chapter yet, this year," he said.

The pandemic has introduced new tools for both programs. Nancy Wiggens Condron, who heads up a 4-H horse club – and said her group has increased from three to 11 – admitted she "dug her heels at first," about online meetings, but said "it's been great."

Her charges are mostly not friends on a daily basis, and the Zoom meetings have been a "great opportunity for those kids to know each other," she explained. Some who would never speak up during an in-person meeting are quite engaged online. They are also picking up leadership skills to the point that once she gets a meeting going the members take turns leading.

"The nice part is I don't even have to be on there. If the kids want to get on and study by themselves, all they have to do is to log in to Zoom. It's really difficult not meeting in person," she added, "but I'm not sure I will give up those (Zoom) meetings."

McNary offered that he's learned a lot though this last year, especially related to communication skills, but he misses the daily interaction he used to have with his students. And while he sees some positives from the whole Zoom experience, he said his students are ready to move on, as is he.

"I think, quite frankly, they are kinda done with the virtual situation," he confessed.

"All those things (new ways because of COVID) are really beneficial, but I don't want them to be a replacement for how we used to do things, because what we normally do has so much a greater impact on the students."

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