In La Plata County, 215 young farmers are spending their days sprinting with goats, applying lotion to pigs or clipping hair on cattle as they prepare their livestock for the annual county fair.
“The closer it gets to the fair, and the closer it gets to ‘crunch time,’ we call it, the more time you spend at the barn,” said Kali Fassett, the mother of three young competitors.
Young farmers say they are just happy to be competing – every other in-person event at the La Plata County Fair has been canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
In more normal times, hundreds gather at the fair for popular events like the carnival, rodeo, dance and demolition derby. But this year, fair organizers kept what they could and canceled the rest. They are happy4-H’ers can show their hard work and earn some money, said Angela Fountain with Colorado State University Extension.
“We’re still trying to encourage the public not to come to our events, except for the livestock auction,” Fountain said.
Advance registration is required to attend the Junior Livestock Auction so that organizers can limit the audience size and meet public health guidelines. Non-animal projects such as cake decorating and woodworking contests will be posted on the 4-H Club website.
The 4-H and Future Farmers of America shows – where young farmers exhibit livestock they’ve raised in the past year – will kick off Monday with poultry, Tuesday with goats, Wednesday with sheep, Thursday with beef and Friday with swine.
Bobbi Hanhardt, FFA adviser at Bayfield High School, said showing at the fair gives young farmers a sense of closure after a monthslong animal husbandry project.
“It gives them absolutely a sense of pride that you finished a project. It’s an accomplishment,” she said.
This year, instead of a crowd of onlookers, the young farmers will show their livestock before judges, buyers, a limited number of family members – and cameras streaming live video to the La Plata County Fair Facebook page.
“It’s going to be so different this year, I don’t really know what to look forward to – a successful fair,” Fountain said.
Just before the fair, some young competitors were guessing at their competition. Others focused on their animals. For most, the fair will be bittersweet – they will miss seeing their friends, particularly after being out of school since March. But it is better than no fair at all.
Crunch timeOn a good day, the Fassetts wake up at 6 a.m. to start working with the livestock they plan to bring to the fair. For them, “crunch time” means spending up to 10 hours a day in the barn.
“We spend more time in the barn than we do in the house,” said Brock Fassett, 13.
The fair is the culmination of months of work. Brock and his sisters, Maryann, 11, and Emma, 8, plan to show breeding and market cattle and market lambs they have been raising for months.
The Fassetts spend every day training their livestock, bathing and blow-drying their hair, feeding and watering them.
All young farmers have to train their livestock in certain ways to show their best features to the judge. Pigs should walk with heads up. Lambs should stand with straight legs and walk by the farmer’s side as they guide the animals by the chin. Even hairstyle matters – it can be clipped to accentuate the animal’s best features, like muscle tone and bone structure.
As they perform haircuts and buy new masks in preparation for the fair, they try not to think about the competition. Still, both Maryann and Emma, who is joining the fair for the first time, felt the tension.
“I haven’t shown sheep at a big, big show, so I’m nervous about that,” Emma said. “But I’m really excited that it’s going on.”
A socially distanced fair means Brock won’t be able to see many of his friends – which is especially difficult after schools closed in March because of the pandemic, cutting off many of his social interactions.
“I’m kinda upset that it’s not the same this year. I like the socialization, and I missed out on school for a while, too,” Brock said. “I’m happy that we have a fair.”
‘Barbossa the pig’At the Hanhardt’s farm outside of Bayfield, every pig is named after a “Pirates of the Caribbean” character. Cooper Hanhardt, 11, tapped Barbossa on the side to direct it around his yard. Last year, Hanhardt had the grand champion hog. His method of success?
“We love on them and train them,” he said.
Hanhardt’s pigs get daily walks, rinses and lotion in addition to their training. Then Hanhardt turns his attention caring for the goats, which he also will show at the fair, and other farm animals – the whole process takes up to four hours a day. Pig prices vary based on the market, but if he makes a profit at the junior auction this year, the money will help him buy livestock next year, he said.
“If we work hard, it pays off really good,” Hanhardt said, saying the work made him feel proud.
Bobbi Hanhardt, his mother, said 4-H projects teach kids to be humble, too, especially when something doesn’t go according to plan.
“It teaches kids to roll with the punches, to be humble about things that are out of your control, but to also take pride in stuff that does work out right,” she said.
‘Bunny COVID’At her farm near Elmore’s Corner, Haily Dahl, 10, has kept her rabbits in lockdown. She is careful about when the door to their enclosure opens and the rabbits’ exposure to other animals. A novel virus, fatal for rabbits, has been circulating that can pass from wild rabbits and other animals to her own rabbits.
“I can’t bring them to fair because of the bunny virus that I call ‘bunny COVID,’” Dahl said.
Instead of rabbits, Dahl will show ducks for breeding and for market. The switch, however, was hard, she said – she had to raise numerous fair-quality ducks and spend more time cleaning their barn. That’s in addition to cleaning pens, watering, feeding and training animals to show at the fair.
Melidy Dahl, 12, hopes to sell a market sheep in the junior auction. The money would help her buy new lambs and supplies for next year, she said.
“I’m excited to see how it turns out this year with everything going on,” she said. “My favorite part is watching everybody go along each year and learning all the stuff it represents in real life.”
The family usually treats the fair like an opportunity to support friends and a working vacation – a rare occurrence when they have more than 90 animals to care for on a daily basis.
That’s the main loss, said Melissa Jahnke, the Dahl’s mother. But it’ll be a new experience especially when it comes to the competition.
“We were laughing about, with the kids being home and not in school, how much fiercer the competition is going to be because they’ve had a lot of extra time to work with these animals,” Jahnke said.
A ‘wolfie’ showAt the Sanburgs’ farm near Ignacio, two show goats hop over wooden jumps in their pen to get to their food and water. Every day, Rachel Sanburg, 14, walks them to the end of the road, then sprints back.
For goats headed to market, the exercise helps develop their front and back leg muscles, Sanburg said. She learned the trick from her mom.
“I’m looking forward to this year because I feel like it’s gonna be a pretty ‘wolfie’ show, and I think it’ll be a lot of fun,” Sanburg said. “Wolfie,” in her family, means competitive. “I also am pretty bummed that there’s not going to be the carnival or dance or anything.”
Sanburg essentially is running her own business. She is selling livestock to private buyers, selling female goats as a breeder does, and hopes to make up to $1,000 in the junior auction at the fair. Her profits go straight into her savings account for college, she said.
In the days before the fair, Sanburg was nervous – but like some of her peers, her nerves centered around joining the fair during the pandemic more than competing. Masks were so controversial, and she worried there would be conflicts among participants.
“I think it’s going to be a little more stressful,” she said.
But she was still looking forward to that tension in the showroom, the feedback from the judges and the competition – there were some new girls in her level that were pretty good at showing, she said.
“It’s just all a new ballgame,” Sanburg said.