I've heard it said many times that the problem with any youth program is the parents. To that we might add: "and those who are in charge of enforcing the rules but refuse to do it."
The controversy this year going into the Colorado State Fair (CSF) was that the 4-H and FFA programs were requiring all livestock entries to have a premise ID. This was quite possibly the most publicized CSF rule ever due to the controversy that accompanied its implementation.
Those opposed to national ID capitalized on it as their rallying cry, instituting public-relations and protest campaigns at quite a few of the county fairs. Incidentally, the rule was implemented at the behest of several of the state's largest cattlemen's groups as a proactive step in protecting the health of Colorado livestock.
The rule required all 4-H livestock projects in the state to have a premises ID for the 2007-2008 calendar year, but two animals that had qualified for this year's livestock sale didn't have a premises ID. The owners were asked to simply list an address and phone number on a slip of paper, but they refused, apparently preferring to make a political statement.
But for some inexcusable and unexplainable reason, CSF officials essentially rewarded these youth exhibitors for not adhering to rules that were very clear. While the animals weren't allowed to sell in the sale, they were given the exact same amount as the replacement animals that were chosen, and the exhibitors were reimbursed for their travel expenses!
Several key factors need to be mentioned. First, livestock shows run a high risk for disease transmission, and animal-health officials felt the premises-ID rule was a very good tool to help stop some sort of outbreak. Exhibitors, of course, always have a choice; if they don't agree with the rules established by 4-H or FFA, they can elect not to participate in those programs. But they shouldn't have the right to pick and choose which rules they will follow. After all, an exhibitor without health or brand papers wouldn't have been allowed to show.
Most people reacted in dismay and frustration upon watching once again a prominent youth program get bullied into not following its own rules due to the threat of litigation and controversy. But, at some level, the episode is almost humorous in that these exhibitors not only chose not to comply with established rules, but were rewarded beyond other exhibitors who did follow the rules.
Sure, it was an orchestrated attempt by activists to raise an issue. And CSF avoided litigation -- which would assuredly have won -- as well as negative media coverage that youth programs definitely don't need. But CSF officials also sent the message loud and clear that all rules are only suggestions; and if you elect to not follow them, and are willing to threaten lawsuits, then you will be rewarded.
Of course, setting aside the CSF's unwillingness to enforce its own rules and the message that sent, it's still a great thing to walk through the aisles of this country's livestock shows and see the quality of young men and women who participate. It's also gratifying to witness the support that local communities continue to give to these programs to make them possible. Politicizing our youth is bad enough, but being rewarded for doing so was something that should not have happened.