Andrew Gathje shows off his state fair 4-H ribbons. Gathje's Cornish rock hybrid market birds earned him reserve grand champion in the poultry division.  GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/CHATFIELD NEWS
Andrew Gathje shows off his state fair 4-H ribbons. Gathje's Cornish rock hybrid market birds earned him reserve grand champion in the poultry division. GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/CHATFIELD NEWS
Andrew Gathje may feel a bit royal on his return from the Minnesota State Fair. Andrew, a 15-year-old member of the Root River Rabbits 4-H Club and sophomore at Chatfield High School, recently participated in the state fair poultry competition where he received third place and was named the Poultry Prince.

"This was the first year I was old enough to be in it," Andrew explained. "You have a written test, an oral interview and your bird gets judged, then your showmanship, then there's an optional contest where you dress out birds, tell what you know about external and internal egg grading...you don't have to do it, but you get extra points."

He continued and said the last part includes barbecuing a chicken and participants get graded on tenderness, doneness, whether they cut off the fat before they started cooking it. He added, "If you make the final round, you have to be as extroverted as you can and answer questions from the judge, be funny, engage the crowd, and give as much information on poultry as you can."

The Poultry Prince and Princess competition was only a part of Andrew's trip to the 2013 Minnesota State Fair. The son of Andy and Nora Gathje of Pleasant Grove, Andrew has spent the past year raising market, or meat, birds to take to the Fillmore County fair and hopefully to the state fair, which he was successful in doing. He earned ribbons and recognition for his showmanship and knowledge of the breeds.

"I took Cornish rock hybrid birds - I brought two to the state fair. I had Goldstars and white leghorns and Black Australorps," he said. "When you go to the state fair, you can bring only one pen of birds, and I felt that my meat birds had the most potential. That's why I chose to bring them."

The experienced bird enthusiast told how he determines what kind of birds he'd like to bring for competition at the fairs.

"When deciding what birds to bring to the fair, it's a year-round process. I go to different shows and see what I like, get in contact with a hatchery to see if they have what I want and can get what I like," Andrew explained. "Annually, our family raises Cornish rock hens so we can put meat in the freezer, and these are hybrids so that they'll gain as much weight as possible. The ones I brought to the fair are right in the middle weight - they're about what Gold 'n' Plump would sell - so that's why I chose them to take to the state fair and why my birds did so well this year."

That choice also determined what he had to study before packing up his pair of rocks to go to the Great Minnesota Get-Together and how to present it to a judge. "Based on what you bring to the state fair, the judge asks questions off that, and if you bring meat birds, he asks questions about the poultry industry," shared Andrew. "I was pretty nervous, but in my mind, no matter what the outcome, the educational benefits were more important, and you're supposed to have fun with it and learn."

Andrew placed well at the county fair, but not high enough to be guaranteed a state fair trip until others who had done well showing their birds and other species chose not to take their birds as state fair entries.

"At the county fair, I didn't have a purple ribbon, but my Black Australorps got second in class for standard breeding trios," he said. "I also took digital photography and indoor gardening projects."

Andrew received a grand champion ribbon with his gardening project and went to the state fair with it, and also got a purple ribbon at the state fair. "This year, I did a hanging herb garden with six different herbs in Mason jars screwed to a frame, and I put roller clamps on it and hung it on the deck."

Confident that his herb garden project and his birds at least had a chance to shine at the state fair, Andrew spent a few minutes before the poultry show contemplating how to remain calm and share his knowledge of Cornish hens as carefully as possible.

"Before the showmanship class, I went to the Ford booth and looked at trucks and tractors. It was sort of a meditative thing to do between the showmanship and other categories," he admitted. "I know I can do it and that no matter what happens, I'm going to learn something, and that's what I was shooting for. I think the most I expected was a blue ribbon and a callback for showmanship. That was my goal at the time, to place third or fourth in showmanship overall."

He was so very pleasantly surprised to receive reserve grand champion that his expectations were more than exceeded. "It's fun - this year, I learned that anything's possible. You have to expect the unexpected because you never know what's going to happen. You have to go in with confidence, knowing that you might or might not win and that you're going to learn something, no matter what the outcome."

Additionally, Andrew and his fellow Fillmore County 4-Hers earned second place overall in herdsmanship. he explained, "We got second of all counties in Minnesota for keeping our birds' feed and water filled, for cleanliness of the birdcages, and for our consumer education."

He lined up his state fair ribbons, wondering how he might find room for them alongside previous years' county and state fair ribbons hanging in his farmhouse bedroom.

"I got sixth place in judging overall, and that makes me the first alternate for the national poultry judging convention at the National Poultry Conference in Louisville, Kentucky, in November, the week before Thanksgiving," Andrew said. "I got a purple ribbon for my herb garden, and a blue for my market birds, a showmanship callback, and reserve grand champion - second place overall for my market chickens."

With the state fair shuttered and awaiting the arrival of next August, Andrew is busy selecting birds he'd like to raise next spring and also preparing his gardening skills for a workshop at which he's been invited to assist.

"At the state far, the same judge recommended that I spread my knowledge of gardening and teach others, so I accepted a position to teach gardening at a winter 4-H exploration workshop, and I'm looking forward to that," he added.

He feels that what he's gained through participation in the county and state fairs as part of 4-H and what he's gained through 4-H itself is invaluable. "The knowledge and the speaking skills of being in poultry has been priceless through 4-H. I'd recommend it to anybody because you can raise poultry no matter where you live, even in town," Andrew concluded.