by Amalia Pineres, Special to the Roundup
In early September, approximately 35 children and their animals gathered under the tents at the Northern Gila County Fair. For some of them, this was their first experience with a tradition that spans nearly 60 years. A tradition supported by both 4-H and Future Farmers of America and one that is part of the fabric that makes up rural America. A tradition that teaches children how to grow and nurture animals as well as maximize their value at auction. A tradition that reminds us all that the meat on our tables once lived and breathed on a farm or ranch somewhere.
For the fair participants, these realizations sometimes involve heartbreak. How does a child spend months attending to the needs of their animal deal with the knowledge the animal will be auctioned and most likely slaughtered? How does a child gain the trust and obedience of an animal without affection, without attachment? They don’t. Most love their animals and some can’t bear to part with them. The goats at auction sometimes sell as pets or to petting zoos, but just as often sell for their meat. The steers and pigs nearly always go to slaughter, but their owners will love them no less. One young lady bargained hard with a potential buyer for her goat before the auction. She extracted his promise he would keep the goat as a pet and regaled him with her goat’s positive qualities. Could he not use her goat as a lawn mower?
Raising and showing an animal for fair requires months of training, grooming and effort, with twice a day feeding and watering — rain or shine, holidays and weekends included. Pigs, lambs and goats are obtained six months before the fair. Owners of steers will start as much as 11 months before fair.
At fair, awards focus on both market quality and showmanship. Those who win showmanship have to demonstrate they have awareness and control of their animal’s every move, not so easy when an animal is big and unpredictable, and often hilarious when it involves a pig!
For days before fair, the kids pass the time preparing their animals, sharing stories as they work. Witness the lamb that followed her owner everywhere she went and spent her downtime asleep in her lap. Don’t forget the goat that ate part of a chair and all the ribbons off of her own advertising. One steer actually learned to race the owner’s dog while fetching sticks. A particularly enterprising young man shared that he had fashioned a saddle for his steer and sometimes rode him. Probably not 4-H approved, but pretty neat, nonetheless.
The young farmers also had their war stories — bites, sprains and bruises were commonplace in the close quarters many shared with their animals and — usually — accidental. Many of the kids got stepped on at some point — and two participants broke a foot after being stepped on by their steers.
By auction day, the kids are pretty tired. (So are their parents.) They look forward to the recognition for their work and sacrifice, but often not to saying goodbye to an animal they have grown to love. Financially, most hope to at least break even. This year, all the animals sold. Some years they don’t. As difficult as it is to let go of their animal, bringing it back home unsold is worse. An unsold animal tells that child that no one appreciated or wanted the animal they have valued so much for so long. How painful is that?
Fair also brings out the best of our town. The young man with the smallest goat, won the biggest prize. We all got to witness his tears dry up and his smile bloom as his animal went for top dollar. There were cheers for another child and his turkey. His was the only turkey, and from the way he trembled and held that turkey close, we all knew he loved that bird. So, when a stranger bought it for hundreds of dollars, and then gifted it back to him, we roared our approval. Another young man’s goat went for top dollar, and we thrilled because we knew he had no parents there to support him. And the young lady who bargained so hard to keep her goat alive? She got her wish, and thanks to a generous donor, she now has a pet goat!
There, under the tents with Boss, Pumpkin, Cure, Oreo and a multitude of other animals, many of us saw our children take some painful steps toward adulthood. In nurturing their animals, they learned skills they will need as parents, nurses, farmers, doctors, etc. Their animals were their teachers. Thank you, Boss, for your sacrifice. We miss you.