Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Report from the County Fair, Part 3: Animals

Once you get past the 4H kids themselves, the animals are really the heart of the Fair.

Most of the people who come to visit don’t really get this, of course.  I certainly didn’t, not until I ended up on the inside of things anyway, as much of the inside as a 4H parent can get without serving on any formal Fair committees.  I do my volunteering, both at the Fair and throughout the year (for some reason I end up working the food booths a lot, and there’s a reason we’re the only 4H club at the Drama Festival that has tech) and I help my daughters and their various projects get set up.  In a world where hours are at a premium that’s enough, I think – I don’t have time for all of the things I am required to do, let alone all the things other people think I ought to do, which means that attempts to conscript me into formal positions will be met with astonishment at such effrontery.  There might even be sarcasm.  But you have to chip in to make things work, and once you do you see things differently.

For most people, the Fair is the midway and the concerts and the vendors.  Those are the things in the middle, geographically, and therefore the ones most people see.  The projects are all on one end, and the animals are all at the other, but this is a 4H Fair.  It’s not like most County Fairs, which are open-class.  The heart of the Fair is the kids and their projects, and the projects that require the most time and energy year-round are the animals.

Plus the kids with the bigger animals can sleep over.  They own the place.  You’re just visiting.

Lauren is our animal person.  Once you get past cats, Tabitha is pretty content to leave the animals alone, but Lauren may well end up as a farmer at the rate she’s going.  She started with rabbits, then added chickens, and then turkeys.  This year she added pigs. 

When you total all that up, well, it was a busy Fair.

The first of Lauren’s animals to go through her paces was Drake, the pig she had been borrowing.  Andy loaded Drake (and Panic, the pig Autum was borrowing) into the stall in the Swine barn on Tuesday, where they rested comfortably for a while.  Drake is the black one.

The first thing that they do with the pigs is weigh them.  The pigs have to weigh between 260 and 290 pounds (which is, um, really heavy in metric).  On the one hand, Drake just about made the cutoff, coming in at 285.  On the other hand, she did leave the weigh-in slightly lighter than she went into it.  They herd the pigs into an enclosure and shut the door behind them, since pigs are not generally content to stand on a scale until the numbers stabilize otherwise.  Unfortunately her tail got caught in the door and she started forward, which left her an inch or two shorter than she had been, poor thing.  She recovered nicely, though, and was happy and healthy when they took her away at the end of the Fair.

That night there was Swine Showmanship.

Have you ever seen Swine Showmanship?  It is just the oddest thing you can possibly imagine. 

It takes place in a pine-shaving-covered space that’s just about big enough to let in a dozen or so exhibitors and their pigs.  And then they mill around.  That’s pretty much it.  Except that the exhibitors all have what look like child’s fishing rods and they use them to direct the pigs from place to place – the goal of the exercise is to demonstrate how well you have trained your pig to respond to your direction, after all – and a) this works better for some pigs than others and b) this is a rather limited space in which to work, which means that there are all kinds of traffic jams and pile-ups, not to mention the occasional runaway.  The exhibitors do this with a prescribed and – to the outside observer – rather peculiar bent-knee kind of crabwalk gait, all the while keeping intense eye contact with the judge who is milling about with the rest of them inside that space.

They do this for a while, and eventually the judge starts sending people off into the side stalls until everyone is there in the likely order of finish.  That’s the judge with the red ribbon, there on the right, in the middle picture above.  This is where she asks all of those doing the Showmanship a few questions to see how much they know about their animals and makes whatever mental adjustments to the order she feels are necessary.

Eventually she lets them mill around again, and then herds them back into the stalls again, after which there is a short explanation of who got what ribbon and why.  It goes by surprisingly quickly.  And then the cycle begins with the next class.  Lauren ended up with a white ribbon, which isn’t bad for her first time out.  Some of her competitors have been showing pigs for years!

The next morning was the Barrow Show, where they judge the pigs themselves.  This means Lauren had to get there early to wash and groom her pig.

The Barrow Show is very similar to the Showmanship, really, except there’s only one round of milling about and no questions for the exhibitors.  That’s the judge in the khakis, in the bottom picture below.  Drake ended up with a white ribbon, though Lauren was happy to note that it was the highest ranking white of all of Andy’s pigs and she did not come in last in her class (Drake was judged with the Heavies, which sounds sort of ominous but was actually pretty fun).

The last thing they do with the pigs is sell them.  These are livestock, after all, and none of them are still with us as I type this. 

I’d never been to a livestock auction until a couple of years ago at the Fair, when we went through it with Lauren’s turkey.  It’s much the same process with the pigs, really.  For the Meat Sale (as it is bluntly known – the poultry auction is part of the more euphonious “Fur and Feather Sale”) they line up all of the exhibitors and march them, one by one, into the same area where the Showmanship and Barrow Show were held (now conveniently pine-shaving-free).  The exhibitor holds up a big sign that he or she made the night before, if they were planning ahead (that morning if not).  For poultry you just describe the class (“Bronze Tom”) but for pigs you have to list the weight as well, since they’re sold by the pound.  The bidding starts pretty much the instant the exhibitor comes to a complete stop in front of the auctioneer, and it usually goes by fairly quickly.  The YAAAAA! Men stand to either side and call out whenever they see a bid, and by the time a full minute has elapsed it’s almost always over and they move on to the next.

Lauren’s pig was purchased by one of our local supermarkets for a tidy sum.  Our original assumption was that Andy would get the money, but it turns out he just wanted his expenses.  So Lauren will have a nice boost to her college fund (and, perhaps, a bit that doesn’t quite make it into the fund so she can enjoy something nice, because you have to do that).  Thanks, Andy!

The problem with having too many different animals at the Fair is that the Fair is only so long, which means that things overlap.  The Barrow Show, for example, was exactly the same time as the Rabbit Showmanship, so there were a few anxious moments as the schedules got closer and closer together.  Fortunately Lauren’s pig was judged with nearly half an hour to spare before her Rabbit Showmanship class was called.  In any case, the Rabbit people are used to it and are much more flexible than the Swine people (for obvious reasons, if you’re there to see it), so they told her she could get it done at a slightly different time if the conflict proved unavoidable.  It all worked out.

There was some question as to which of the rabbits Lauren would use for Showmanship, since you really want a fairly docile rabbit for this process.  Maybelline ended up the winner of that debate, and this year she rewarded that choice by not taking a slice out of Lauren’s face like she did last year.  So, progress.

Rabbit showmanship is one of those things that’s hard to explain if you’ve never seen it.  From the outside it looks fairly simple – the exhibitor walks up to the judge, rabbit in hand, and then spends about five or ten minutes saying things that you, the audience member, cannot hear and flipping the rabbit upside down and back any number of times to demonstrate various rabbit bits.  But having heard the actual spiel that these exhibitors are required to go through, I can tell you it’s more complicated than it looks.  There’s a lot to know about rabbits.

Also, you don’t get a rod to keep the rabbit in line, like you do with pigs.  You’re on your own.  Just you and a rabbit.

Lauren moved up a class this year, so the competition was that much tougher, but she came home with a Second Blue, only a couple of points away from a trophy.  Congratulations to Lauren!

The actual Rabbit judging was later that night.  We’re used to this routine by now.  It starts at 5pm when the first exhibitors schlep their bunnies from the Rabbit Barn to the Stock Pavilion, just across the way, and it runs until the stars wink out and the oceans freeze, by which time all of the rabbits have been judged and the trophies awarded.  Or at least it used to be that way.  This year went much more quickly than in years past, and on a close, muggy day we were grateful for that.

Lauren actually had three rabbits this year.  Maybelline made her third appearance at the Fair, and ended up with a red.  Her offspring did better, though.  Keaton, the junior buck, got a blue.  And Miley, the junior doe, got blue for best in her class and very nearly came home with a trophy as well!

The last of Lauren’s animals to be judged this year were the poultry.  Unfortunately I had to go into work that day, so I only heard about it second-hand.  Oh well.  It’s the price one pays for volunteering – I had intended to go to work on Friday, but there were several volunteer opportunities that made themselves known as Things I Was Doing (selling cream puffs, cleaning the Poultry Barn) that day and so sacrifices had to be made.  Kim got to see it, though, and that made up a bit for the fact that I saw the Barrow Show while she had to work.

This whole “earning a living” thing really gets in the way sometimes.

The turkeys were judged first.  The hen got a white and the tom got a red and we have no idea why either of those things happened because nobody could hear the judge.  I can’t say I would dispute those calls, but it’s always nice to know their reasoning and I’m sorry it didn’t work out that way.

As for Lauren’s chickens, the two Dominiques (hen and cockerel) both got white ribbons, largely because of comb issues – the hen’s comb is inverted, while the cockerel’s is both lopsided and “out of control.”  The bantam Rhode Island Reds (hen and cockerel) both got Third Blue ribbons in fairly large classes, though, so that was nice.

Somewhere in there is Chicken Showmanship, which is even more free-form than the Rabbit Showmanship in that there is no set schedule for it – you just have to find a time to go in with your bird in between all the birds you have that are being shown, which means it can sometimes take a couple of tries if the showing happens quickly and the line moves slowly.  Like all the other Showmanships, it’s more about the exhibitor than the animal, which makes Lauren’s trophy-winning performance all that much sweeter.

Apparently she and another exhibitor tied and it had to go to a round of tie-breaker questions.  Nice job, Lauren!

I also missed the Poultry Fun Event, which was new this year and happened on Saturday afternoon.  I’m not sure who organized it, but apparently it was, as advertised, a great deal of fun.  Lauren’s Rhode Island Red rooster took first prize in the crowing contest, and her Dominique hen took first in Walking the Plank and third in Agility.  You didn’t know chickens were such balletic little pirates, did you?  There – now that’s a thing you know.

I did get to go to the Fur and Feather Sale on Saturday morning, though, where Lauren once again had to wave about a sign advertising her turkey for auction.  This sale works a bit differently from the Meat Sale in that it is possible to donate the animal back to the sale once you’ve purchased it, at which point the money goes to the exhibitor and then it gets auctioned off again with that money going to the Scholarship Fund.  Since Kim and I, as educators, heartily support the Scholarship fund, we made it a point to bid on those whenever they came up.  This is how we inadvertently ended up buying Lauren’s turkey, whose original bidder had donated it back for resale.

So now we have a turkey for the holidays, I suppose.

Loading out the animals was the usual chaotic mess that you would expect when an entire Fair’s worth of livestock that had come in across several days has to leave in two hours.  We didn’t have to do anything with the pig, as that was taken care of by the winning bidders (who subcontracted it out to the actual meat processors, I believe).  But Kim collected the rabbits.  Tabitha got all of the artistic and houseplant projects.  And Lauren and I gathered up the poultry and took it all to the barn, where they were reunited with their buddies.

Except poultry really don’t have buddies.  Especially the turkeys, who spent most of the night fighting with each other until they went to sleep, whereupon they forgot everything that had ever happened to them ever and got on with their lives.  They’re fine now.

And so are we.

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