Working 12-hour shifts in a birthing center can be grueling. But it’s a snap compared to the week R.N. Aggie Mowry will spend as superintendent of the rabbit barn at the Benton Franklin Fair.
It will be blistering hot. It nearly always is during fair week.
It will be dusty. It’s the Mid-Columbia in August.
And it will be packed with kids. Where else would they be the week before school starts?
Nonetheless, Mowry, of Richland, has saved a week’s vacation each of the last five years to make sure the rabbits are well-taken care of and to help kids prepare their animals for fitting and showing.
And during the other 51 weeks of the year, Mowry volunteers as leader of the Rada Rabbits and Cavies 4-H Club — the largest 4-H in the Tri-Cities.
Mowry, who was born and raised in the Netherlands, moved to the U.S. in 1986. And moved to the Tri-Cities in 1994. She attended her first Benton Franklin Fair and Rodeo in 1998 with her daughter, Sarah.
“I was amazed at the rabbit barn,” said Mowry, who had raised rabbits while she was growing up in the Netherlands.
But she had never had any exposure to 4-H until she was walked into that barn.
“I started talking to the 4-H leader and she was told us about 4-H and my daughter wanted to get involved,” said Mowry.
In 1999, Mowry’s daughter joined the Rada Rabbits and Cavies 4-H Club, which also requires members to actually raise a rabbit or a cavie, which is a family of rodents that includes the guinea pig, as the member’s main project.
So Sarah Mowry got a rabbit and Aggie Mowry became a 4-H mom. Two years later, she became the leader of the Rada Rabbits and Cavies 4-H Club.
When Mowry took over the club, it only had a dozen youth. Now the club boasts a membership for about 45 kids.
Getting the parents involved in the club was an early goal for Mowry, and having them involved has helped spur the growth in the club, she said.
“We build lasting friendships with other parents while we do this, because we are all in the same business or raising children,” she said.
But when the Benton Franklin Fair rolls around, Mowry steps down from her 4-H leader role so she can more effectively be a good superintendent to all the kids with rabbits in the barn, regardless of their club.
Mowry said the Benton Franklin Fair Board approached her about taking on the responsibility in 2006. Initially she declined. The board advertised the position, but got no takers.
The Board told her if there was no superintendent by May 1 of that year, there wouldn’t be a 4-H rabbit show.
Mowry didn’t what that to happen.
She contacted a friend, Mike Nolan, and asked him if he could help her with the task. She would be the superintendent of the barn, and he would be director.
“He doesn’t know about rabbits, but he’s really good at building things and working with his hands,” she said.
The pair decided they would take on the task for two years and then pass it on to someone else.
“But when we got to two years, that’s when you get it all figured out,” said Nolan, who, with Mowry, directed a work party of more than 50 club youth and parents getting the barn ready.
They spread fresh sawdust across the dirt floor, arranged the tables topped them with wire rabbit cages. They also laid a smooth wide path of plywood through the rows, to make the barn as handicapped-accessible as possible.
“We have more visitors than any other barn,” said Mowry.
Seniors and young kids love to walk through and pet the soft, sweet furry animals, which is actually encouraged in the bunny barn. Mowry said they like to make the barn as accessible and safe as possible for those who are handicapped, in wheelchairs and also for moms pushing strollers.
She encourages the 4-H kids to talk to the visitors, let them pet their animals and to teach them about the animals.
But, at least for Mowry, fair week isn’t about the animals. It may appear to be on the outside, but it’s far more important, she said.
“It’s the life skills they are learning,” Mowry said, referring to the 4-H youth.
“For most of the kids, summer vacation is maybe going on a vacation or camping, watching television, playing video games or sleeping in,” she said.
But for 4-H kids, that comes to an abrupt halt during fair week.
They have to show up at 6 a.m.
They have to do their chores.
They have to keep their areas clean.
And they have to have conversations with people they don’t know.
“I want our club to be known for their kindness,” Mowry said. “We have a huge petting table and they work together as a team. They learn public speaking, which builds confidence.”
They learn about endurance, because they have to be there from the time the barn opens at 6 a.m. to the time it closes at 11 p.m.
And they learn about responsibility.
The barn can get very hot, which rabbits are extremely susceptible to. The kids have to be diligent about misting the animals with water and keeping frozen water bottles in their cages to help them stay cool. If the rabbits don’t stay cool enough, they can — and do — die.
“We lose several every year,” Mowry said.
And the kids take away memories and friendships that will last a lifetime, Mowry adds.
But what does Mowry get out of it?
“Part of my life philosophy is that you do what needs to be done,” Mowry said.
And a big part of that is setting an example.
“What your mom did — or didn’t do — while you were growing up is a huge part of who you become,” she said. “My mother, she was always helping people in different ways. So I think it’s important to find your niche, and set an example for kids.”
That, in turn, will create better grownups.
Mowry, who is 54, still has one daughter at home, who attends high school and raises rabbits in 4-H. Mowry said sometimes folks ask her if she’ll continue being involved with 4-H after her daughter graduates high school.
“Why wouldn’t I,” Mowry responds.
The Benton Franklin Fair and Rodeo is Aug. 21 through Aug. 25 and the Benton County Fairgrounds. For more information go to www.bentonfranklinfair.com.