Youth put livestock on display at fairs

Published 9:43 am Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Volunteer Jennifer Johnson provides some pointers to 4-H members on selecting a good show goat.

by Neil Clark

For over a 100 years in some counties, and over 30 years at the Franklin/Southampton County Fair, young people have been spending their spring weeks selecting the best specimen from among the local herd to prep and work with for competition in area livestock shows and for those with “the right stuff,” culminating with the Virginia State Fair.

Goats are getting popular, but youth exhibitors can select project animals from among a variety of species — cattle, sheep, goats, poultry and rabbits. Rabbits really open up the possibility of any child participating even if they are in communities where other animals may not be possible to house.

It is also reality check in that these young people work with, train, groom and build a bond with a project animal knowing that this animal is destined for the slaughterhouse to become part of the food chain. To some this is harsh, but to the hardworking men and women who grow our food that is the everyday reality that most consumers don’t appreciate fully when they drop by the burger joint or pick up frozen dinners at the grocery store.

When did we lose touch? Likely somewhere between when one out of 20 people worked on a farm to the current day where only one out of 155 produce the food that sustains a population approaching seven billion. That means 154 of us take for granted eating each day without the early mornings feeding, the 365-day schedule required in caring for a livestock herd or chicken or hog houses, the frustration and investment loss of a dead calf caused by a coyote attack.

Food production is one very important element, but every youth exhibitor gains valuable life skills in the areas of responsibility, economics, entrepreneurship, confidence and presentation skills. And of course all of this “serious learning” takes place in an atmosphere of fun. Fun is key to maintaining the interest of these 9- to 19-year-olds.

When asked what she liked most about being in the Southampton 4-H Livestock Club, 9-year-old Maryanne Johnson of Pine Meadow Farm in Drewryville responded “You can run for office … I am the recreation leader!”

Maryanne said her favorite 4-H memory was “showing my goat Hokie Bubba Johnson when I was a Cloverbud.” Maryanne’s brother, Lee, 11, made a very respectable showing at the State Fair last year and counts that among his best memories. Lee enjoys spending time with other friends with the same interests is what I really like about showing livestock.”

It is great to see some of these young people really come out of their shell. Many of these kids start out being very shy and not very confident. By the time they receive training and practice with keeping their record books, writing about their experience, keeping their financial and growth numbers, and presenting their animals (stature, eye contact, and oral communication emphasized), they really become solid and bold citizens, according to long-time livestock volunteer leader Walt Young III.

Young says we need to encourage these kids that will become the farmers of tomorrow.”

Many area businesses and organizations have supported this program over the years and their investment in agricultural pursuits demonstrates their commitment to the future of agriculture in Western Tidewater. Many livestock exhibitors utilize funds received toward their college tuition. And even if they don’t choose college, everyone gains valuable leadership and life skills that will help them be successful.

We are extremely grateful for the community support of the groups, businesses and individuals who devote significant time and resources into these youth. If you ask around the community, you will find many current leaders got a boost forward in participating 4-H livestock programs as children. It is my hope that we can continue this tradition, and that 30 years from now, our community leaders will reflect back on 4-H Livestock Club being formative in their leadership development.”

For those interested in becoming involved in the livestock programs, contact the Southampton Extension office at 653-2572 or Isle of Wight Extension Office at 365-6261.

The registration deadline for exhibiting livestock at the Franklin/Southampton County Fair from Aug. 11-14 is June 9 and the deadline for Isle of Wight from Sept. 14-18 is June 20.

NEIL CLARK is a Virginia Agriculture Extension Agent, serving as Southeast District Forestry and Southampton Interim. He can be reached at