It’s Western Montana Fair week in Missoula, which means the fairgrounds will be a hub of activity through Sunday.

While most fair-goers show up for the food, games and rides, the fair is so much more than ring tosses and corn dogs.

If you really want to experience the spirit of this annual summertime tradition, head over to the animal exhibits and see what the local 4-H kids have been up to for the past few months.

Montana 4-H is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, and the kids who participate in 4-H livestock competitions nowadays are every bit as impressive as they were a century ago.

I’ve always liked walking through the barns to see all of the livestock and farm animals. I mean, when else do you have the chance to run your fingers through sheep wool or see a big cow up close? But, I never realized just how much work goes into raising these critters.

Last summer, however, I had the privilege of writing a feature story about 4-H members who entered animals in the Northwest Montana Fair in Kalispell. You’d be surprised by the knowledge and work ethic of these youngsters. For example, most of the kids who entered steers in the competition had purchased their animals during the fall months. In addition to feeding them, they had to work with the animals on a regular basis to teach them how to walk in the show ring.

Most of the kids who raised pigs had gotten their animals in early spring. Daily feedings and pen cleanings might not seem like a lot, but when you’re busy with school, sports and summertime activities, it’s a pretty big commitment.

These kids are proud of the work they have done, and they love talking about it. Ask them a question or two — you’ll be impressed by how much they know, and you might just learn something new and interesting.

Then you can go get your corn dog.

Brooke is a 2010 graduate of The University of Montana, where she ran track and cross country for the Grizzlies. She is currently working as a writer and editor in Missoula.