ALPENA - Inside the rabbit barn at the Alpena County Fairgrounds Monday, Demi Oliver paused while feeding her and her sister's rabbits to point out something peculiar about one of them.
"These are her siblings," she said, referring to a cage of large, white Californian rabbits with black noses, and grey ears and feet.
Their mother was even bigger, especially compared to the diminutive Itty Bitty, as the rabbit is called.
Jessica Usakowski, left, tells Alex Dean and Courtney Krentz about her decision in judging their Holland Lop junior buck rabbits Monday afternoon.
Oliver's were only a few of many animals at the 139th Alpena County Fair. Rabbits were judged throughout the day on breed and showmanship, and many local 4-H members took home ribbons for their animals. A handful talked about why they enter animals into the fair show, and why they enjoy being "4-Hers."
For Oliver, this is her eighth or ninth year showing animals, she said. Her rabbits did well Monday, with none taking less than second place. Oliver got her start because her mother also raised and showed animals, and after her first try she kept coming back.
"I like getting to know people and animals, and seeing what different types there are," she said.
Over on the other side of the barn, Alex and Shelby Dean tended to their rabbits, with help from their mother, Allie. Before showing his Holland Lop, Alex, 15, said he's been showing animals for 10 years. His family got their start after getting some rabbits from a friend. They had 13 at the fair, along with turkeys, ducks, goats and chickens, and even more at home.
Altogether, Alex and Shelby spend about three hours each day caring for their animals, they said. The two work "together-ish," as Alex put it - being siblings, they don't always get along. It takes some work just to keep the critters watered, fed and in clean cages, but the two enjoy exhibiting their animals at the fair.
"I do it for the experience," Shelby said. "It's a good experience, and I get to see all my friends.
Alex agreed, adding he enjoys getting to compete with other 4-Hers.
In the goat and sheep barn, Caitlin Boyle was setting up the fair's Miracle of Life exhibit, as well as showing off her own rabbits. Showmanship measures an entrant's knowledge of their animal, she explained, while animals judged on breed are weighed and measured. While some enter professionally bred rabbits, others bring in their pet shop-bought mixed-breeds.
Entering rabbits and other animals is an important lesson, both for 4-Hers and those who come to see them, Borke said.
"We use agriculture every day," she said. "What you had for breakfast this morning, a farmer made that. They work hard every day for us, and people don't even realize. They have a glass of milk, and don't even think about where it comes from."
Caitlin's mother, Lynn, is a member of the fair board and the 4-H council, she said. Children who join the organization learn other important life lessons as well, including responsibility and compassion. They also learn an important lesson about loss, whether it's failing to place in an animal show or the death of a prized pet.
Having an animal show coincides with the fair's original intent, board President Jerry Bleau said. In the Alpena County Agriculture Society's original charter, the intent was to promote agriculture and horticulture among the community's children.
"It's interesting in this technological age to see if we can make a difference," he said. "We have to feed the world, somebody does."