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A family affair at the Johnson County Fair

Solon's five Düsters participate in Johnson County Fair
Meg Düster and her pet rabbit are judged in the pet show at the Johnson County Fair in August. (photo by Nora Heaton)

SOLON– Seven ribbons and five days later, the Düster family came to the conclusion of yet another Johnson County Fair.
It’s a busy week for many families in the county. But the Düsters are unique in that they have five children in 4-H– at the same time.
All five kids started 4-H in fifth grade and are still going strong– although the oldest, who just graduated from Solon High School, participated in his last fair this year.
The family includes parents Jennifer and Keith, as well as Simon, 18; Faye, 16; Ella, 14; Mara, 11; and Meg, 10. Also in the family: two horses, one calf, 30 chickens, three ducks, 15 cats, two dogs and one rabbit.
Some of the family’s animals made their way to Iowa City for the fair as well, with a dog, a rabbit, and some chickens and roosters being shown in various events.
The Düsters are “hobby farmers,” Jennifer said. They may sell some eggs to friends now and then, but most of the products of the farm end up on their own dinner table. Doing chores on the farm gives the kids an appreciation for where their food comes from.
4H leader Mary Ellen Wall, who has led the Graham Champions in Solon for 40 years, said the Düsters are the first family she has seen to have five children in 4-H simultaneously.
It certainly makes for an eventful Fair Week. The week can be “complete chaos,” said Jennifer.
With so much going on, what’s the best part of the fair?
“When it’s over,” Faye joked, and her mother laughed.
“I like seeing all the projects the kids have done,” Jennifer said.
Simon appeared at the bleachers.
“Hang onto the beast,” he said to his mother, and handed over the leash to a waggle-tailed Labrador/Dalmatian mix, Cosmo. Cosmo, 18 months old, panted in preparation for his role in the obedience and rally show with Ella later that day.
As Meg and her pet rabbit awaited judging in the pet show, three generations of 4-Hers sat on the bleachers as spectators: the Düster kids, their parents, and their grandparents. And all three generations still get to participate in 4-H, in a way: Mara’s grandmother helped her with a cross-stitch sewing project, for instance.
“4-H is good for the kids,” Jennifer said. “They get to decide what they want to do and learn to budget their time.” Faye, a self-proclaimed procrastinator, chuckled at this. Nevertheless, her final project– a visual arts/photography work with cement-molded leaves, crayon art, and photos– is beautiful.
4-H projects also teach kids some independence, Keith said.
“When the oldest one started, I thought we’d be doing the projects for the kids,” he said. “But it wasn’t like that. They learned to work on their own, we learned how to teach without doing the work. It had a little more meaning for us that way.”
The kids gain experience that will be valuable to them when they’re older, Jennifer said. For example, Simon learned how to weld for 4-H.
It’s also fun, Ella said.
“I like that I get to see my friends,” she said. “All my friends are in 4-H.”
With a chicken in her arms, she smoothed out some stuck feathers.
“And you can learn how to handle animals,” she said.
It was a fruitful fair year, with all five Düster kids earning ribbons. Simon won Best Rocket Design, Faye won a purple ribbon on her visual arts project, Ella won reserve champion for pre-novice B dog obedience and reserve champion for laying hens, Mara won blue ribbons on her food and nutrition and needle arts projects, and Meg won a purple ribbon on her food and nutrition project as well.
But they’re far from finished– you can bet on seeing the Düsters at the fair again next year, animals in tow, ready to compete and have a blast doing it.