Monday, September 1, 2014

Headed to the Fair

As I write this on Labor Day afternoon, Sami and the girls are preparing to wash their Gold Country Fair lambs and give them one last clip.  Lara is showing a market lamb, her eighth trip to the fair since she was 9 years old.  Emma will be showing a market lamb and a ewe lamb (which she's keeping for breeding).  While this week will mark the culmination of a good deal of hard work for the girls (and for Sami and me), it will also give us a chance to catch up with old friends and re-connect with our community.  For me, that's what the fair is all about!

As a commercial sheep producer, I'll admit to mixed feelings about the "industry" that has developed around breeding, raising and showing "club" lambs (lambs that are raised specifically for showing at fairs).  At their best, livestock shows help us establish a standard by which we can evaluate the genetic improvement in our commercial flocks.  Unfortunately, in my opinion, many livestock shows have become beauty pageants for livestock - contests that bear little if any relationship to commercial livestock production.  Animals are evaluated purely on physical appearance, with little or no regard for the quality of the product or the cost of producing it.

Despite my reservations, I think it's important for my daughters to participate in our county fair, for several reasons.  First, I think preparing an animal to show at the fair teaches responsibility.  Both girls have been up early all summer to feed their lambs in the morning.  They've learned about ovine nutrition and animal husbandry.  Emma is showing a market lamb she bought from her fifth grade teacher, along with a ewe lamb that her older lamb birthed last spring.  Lara is showing a lamb selected from the flock of our friend Ann Vassar.  Both girls are learning about evaluating a lamb for its future potential as product.

Second, both girls are learning about marketing - marketing themselves as well as their animals.  Last week, they both donned their show uniforms and delivered invitations to the junior livestock auction to businesses all over Auburn.  They are also learning how to market the end product - largely because we are focused on the end product as a family.  I'm certain that a potential buyer could ask either girl what their favorite cut of lamb is, and both of them could describe the meat and their favorite method for cooking it in great detail!  Both girls will enter their respective showmanship competitions - contests in which they are evaluated on their ability to prepare and show their lambs to their best advantage, as well as their knowledge of sheep production.  Success in the showmanship class means far more to Sami and me than success at the auction!

Third, our daughters are learning about the economics of the sheep business.  While they've always been fortunate enough to make a profit on their lambs, we've been clear that profit is not guaranteed.  Mom and Dad (and Grandma and Grandpa) will not buy or add money to their lambs to make sure they make money.  In other words, they're learning what the sheep business is really like - I'd love a guarantee of making money every year, but that's not how it works!  Furthermore, both girls have shown breeding animals at some point in their fair careers - owning and caring for an animal year round, selecting a ram to compliment the genetic potential of their ewe(s) and caring for a newborn lamb help bring reality to their projects.

Fourth, the girls are learning about working as a community.  At their best, 4-H and FFA programs require the kids to do the work - without the direct, physical assistance of adults!  One of the best things about the fair, for me, is watching the older kids help the younger ones - and vice versa.

Finally, the Gold Country Fair is teaching kids about the impact of this year's drought.  At this year's fair, exhibitors will not be allowed to wash their animals.  While our girls have lived with the implications of the dry year (mostly because their Dad seems obsessed with the drought), many kids in our community don't have this day-to-day connection with the consequences of drought.  I'm looking forward to the conversations this new rule will instigate.

I enjoy seeing photos of sheep shows posted by internet friends from Great Britain, New Zealand and Australia.  Based on the photos, I'd guess that livestock shows in these countries occur in places and under conditions that more closely resemble our production system: they seem to happen in show rings constructed on farms in the middle of pastures.  While our own fairgrounds and show culture seem to depart from my reality as a commercial producer, I think the lessons our girls are learning are crucial to their futures - whether they choose to become ranchers or not.  I'm looking forward to the fair!

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