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County fair was big production for area family

Sisters Abby and Mary Strommen hold their rabbits Jason and Sparky. These rabbits competed in the rabbit agility demonstrations at the Dakota County Fair. Star Gazette photo by Lydia Birt

The Dakota County Fair has something to pique everyone’s interest. At every turn, there is a little bit of everything under the sun. In addition to the chance to see your neighbors’ and friends’ talents, projects or possessions, the county fair gives a way to show off your own hard work. A resource provided by the University of Minnesota in collaboration with the Dakota County Fair is the Minnesota 4-H program.

The Strommens, a Hastings-area family, are members of the Vermillion-based 4-H club Top Notchers. At the Dakota County Fair this August, the last name Strommen was a common sight around many of the exhibits offered by the 4-H program.

“One meeting a month fulfills every interest in my family,” mother Julie Strommen said of 4-H. “The wonderful resources like the agricultural businesses that support 4-H and all the members of our large club make it easy to start small and grow from there.”

The Dakota County Fair and the 4-H program have connected the Strommens to their community and to each other, they said. While some of their projects are individual, some of them take effort from the whole family. The Strommens live on a small hobby farm with an orchard, and work year round to prepare for their fair exhibits. Listed below are just a few of the many areas of expertise that Christian, Mary and Abby are acquiring with the help of the U of M 4-H program and the Dakota County Fair.

Food/Fruit exhibits

The Strommens’ orchard has 19 trees, all planted in the last seven years, that produce several varieties of apples including Zestar and Haralson. Christian Strommen, a sixth-grade member of the Top Notchers, chose these two kinds of apples to enter in the exhibit. His project also included a history and description of the family’s orchard. Christian’s Haralson apples won the championship award in this exhibit at the fair. The Haralson apples were one of two edible entries from the Strommens this year.

Poultry exhibits

Third-grader Abby Strommen chose to enter two types of chickens in the Dakota County Fair’s poultry exhibit. Abby first entered free-range, Cornish cross variety chickens with the intent to sell them for meat. At the fair, Abby received an Award of Excellence for her market chickens and was invited to the Minnesota State Fair to compete. Greg Ries, owner of the Vermillion Elevator, was another invaluable resource to the Strommen family for organic feed and plenty of chicken advice. It was through Ries that the Strommens were introduced to Jonas Sahouani, a 2014 graduate of Hastings High School and member of the Washington County 4-H Club. Sahouani was a great mentor to Abby, Julie Strommen said. When Abby heard about a nearly extinct breed of chickens called Black Java from Sahouani, she dedicated her second poultry project to breeding the “golden retriever” of chickens, she said. The Black Java breed is called “golden retrievers” because they can be bred as either meat or layer chickens. Because they are not specialized for either task, they have been labeled as critically endangered.

“It was easy to raise Black Java because they are good foragers and they eat mostly bugs,” Abby said. “Jonas helped me figure out which chickens were the most pure.”

Abby’s Black Java rooster, “Big Guy,” is the perfect example of a purebred, with black, beetle-green feathers and trademark black toes, they said. Abby received a Reserve Championship award for proficient knowledge of her livestock animal, and a blue ribbon signifying a job well done. Her project also included an educational poster and entries in the Poultry Photography exhibit.

Rabbit exhibits

Although most animals in the livestock categories of the Dakota County Fair are raised to be eaten or sold, some are simply trained to be cute. Mary Strommen, age 7, and her sister Abby entered two rabbits in the rabbit agility demonstrations. Mary and Abby train their rabbits with a homemade course similar to the one at the fair, and also participate in a group practice day prior to the competition.

“We have to keep them on leashes during the practices,” said Julie Strommen. “But we choose not to use an incentive (such as a carrot) while training. We usually pick rabbits with the personality to jump and run around.”

Mary’s Mini Rex rabbit, named Sparky, was competing as an agility rabbit for the first time in the Cloverbud (K-2) division, and was awarded a blue ribbon for a job well done. Abby’s Holland lop rabbit, Jason, took first place last year in the Cloverbud division, and earned also a blue ribbon competing in the beginner level course.

Science, Engineering and Technology exhibits

Christian Strommen was inspired by his grandmother to enter a computer programming project in the fair this year. He developed a parking aide using a computer code called C-language, sensors, LED lights and an Arduino UNO rapid prototyping board. When a vehicle is too close to a garage wall, the LED light changes color to alert the driver. His parking guide is accurate up to a tenth of a centimeter, and is helpful to his grandmother for pulling in and backing out of her condominium’s garage. This project earned him second place in the computer category and a blue ribbon for a good job. Using a different code called JavaScript and website called Khan Academy, Christian also designed a video game called the “Dot Game.”

Christian also had two entries in the aerospace category. First, a FT 3D plane built using foam, paint and plans from, and second, a model tri-copter built from scratch. Both of his projects included Powerpoint presentations explaining the designing and building process.

Expressive arts

As well as all of these exhibits, the Strommen children all individually performed at the fair as violinists, and Mary Strommen had an entry in the Clothing Construction category. Their interests are clearly mismatched, but the Dakota County Fair and the 4-H program has opportunities for all the hobbies, talents or education they could ask for and more. The best part is not doing it alone, said Julie Strommen.

“It’s almost like the younger 4-H’ers learn more from the older kids in 4-H than from the leaders.” said Abby Strommen.

The close, mentoring community that a small town provides combined with the expert knowledge of a large 4-H club makes it easier to participate, said Julie Strommen. When they aren’t preparing for the county fair, Abby and Mary Strommen attend St. John the Baptist School in Vermillion, and Christian Strommen attends St. Elizabeth Ann Seaton’s Catholic School in Hastings. Although they have already been participating in the Top Notchers for four years, they have only begun to scratch the surface of what is available to them.

“Most 4-H’ers enter in every category they can by the time they are seniors,” Christian said.

Christian, Abby and Mary have a long way to go before they are seniors, but judging by their wide interests, they will soon be following in their mentors’ footsteps.

Lydia Birt
Lydia Birt is the Hastings Star Gazette's summer intern. She is a 2014 graduate of Hastings High School and plans to study journalism at the University of Missouri this fall. She is part of the Pohlad internship program through the Minnesota Newspaper Association.
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