A day at the county fair, or: Those who do not learn from history
[Warning: If you are troubled by the fact that some people raise livestock in order to eat it, this post is not for you. Apart from that: potential rural American idyll overload.]
We’ve had two weeks of irresistibly beautiful weather; it seems a little cool for August but I have no objection to the fall coming a bit early. The tomatoes and the sweet corn have been wonderful. According to the state agricultural extension, this summer was fantastic for crops, and so the drive out to the town where my parents grew up was one solid pleasure to the eyes. I’ve described this drive before. Even if I don’t farm, I don’t like to see crops suffering, but the corn is glorious, which means, of course — poor farmers — that prices will be low. The sky was gorgeous, too — I sometimes think the reason to live in Florida was to teach me to look at the sky, which I always used to ignore when I lived here before.
We drove out for the county fair — more specifically, because Niece A was exhibiting animals there with her 4-H club. She was showing rabbits she bred, a two-year-old dairy steer she got as a gift, and one of the neighbor’s heifers.
This is one of those potential family tension points, and as usual, I put my foot right into it by planning to go. One could argue that I’m not the problem — my assumptions are normal, it’s just my family that’s strange, but in my family that is the minority viewpoint, i.e., mine. I wanted to go out to support my niece. My father, whose early life goal was to get off the farm where he grew up, doesn’t understand why anyone would voluntarily spend time with cows. I confess that I generally share that stance; the last time I helped out with milking when a neighbor was on vacation was when I was fifteen, and I also said “never again.” On the other hand, my sister milks for the neighbor (and used to milk in a milking parlor) and their lives are fundamentally bound up in the agricultural cycle, so I don’t see what point my refusal to notice would make, either. And, as I said, it was a glorious day, marred only by listening for the seven hundred forty third time to my father’s sermon about the evils of cows. At the very least, I learned four or five things to look for if I ever need to buy a beef cow.
I am not much like A, temperamentally; I’m more like her younger sister, B. Maybe that’s why, aside from the fact of auntish pride (naches, as someone reminded me this week, so it’s totally legitimate), I look at so much of what she does with such astonishment. Not so much the rabbits, although A herself was annoyed with her rabbits, several of whom developed the wrong color claw and were thus disqualified from competition. They had good skirts (the part next to the flank) and dewlaps and she got a blue ribbon but did not place at all. I think she’s planning to keep these rabbits as pets, but I don’t think she’s planning to continue in rabbit breeding in the future.
But the way she deals with cows — I admire it. She did pretty well with her dairy steer, “Jack Jack.” A dairy steer is a kind of a weird thing. A dairy farmer doesn’t usually want a lot of male animals around. The cows they milk, and maybe they have one bull to breed with, but steers around here were usually killed at birth, or perhaps one or two were spared and raised as beef for the family. Traditionally they made up a small part of the country’s beef supply — as my brother said to me when I asked him if he was going to butcher it himself, “Holstein tastes like shit” — but with beef prices rising they are increasingly being dehorned, castrated, and raised to maturity. A got this one as a gift for some chores she did for the neighbor two years ago, and this was his year for market.
The animals are shown in the livestock hall at the fairgrounds, which has been raked, mucked out and slightly dampened to keep the dust down. The kids are very solicitous of their animals — when I got to the stall, A was blow-drying Jack Jack’s hindquarters (she had just shampooed them clean) to show him off to his best advantage. All of the animals in the same gender, sale and weight class are shown together. They are led into the building, they walk around in a circle, the kids pose them (with little prods that they can use to move their feet or alternately, stroke them), the judge looks at them, they walk around in a circle again, then pause again for another round of closer examination, and then the judge grades them and explains the rankings. Each class takes about twenty minutes to evaluate. A showed her steer in the general evaluation for size and breeding, and then again in showmanship, where the exhibitor demonstrates her knowledge of the breed.
Jack Jack was not in a good mood that day. I have to say that if someone was blowdrying my ass, I might be perturbed as well. He was generally okay in the first round, and A had him under control, just, but in the showmanship round, he dragged her around. You see, Jack weighs 1384 lbs, and A, who’s thirteen, just crossed the 100 lb boundary this summer. The fair has adults around because with the junior exhibitors, this kind of weight ratio imbalance is not unusual. A didn’t get to tell the judge much about her steer, because she could not get him to stand still. Eventually, he tried to mount another steer, and my brother, who probably weighs about 250 lbs, interfered and calmed him down. When she got out of the ring and wrestled Jack Jack into his stall, with her father’s help, she was shaking her foot and her hand.
“Lead chewed the hell out of my hand,” she said, “and goddamned Jack Jack, he stepped on me!”
“Language, A,” my sister-in-law said.
I didn’t say anything, but I doubt I’d have had the guts to keep trying, repeatedly, to body check a steer thirteen times my weight. I’d have given up once I saw it had no effect. And cursed anyway. But she stuck with it.
Jack Jack got third best in his steer weight class class (red ribbon) but A got only a white ribbon for showmanship, probably because she didn’t have him under control. He sold at auction at the end of the fair for $2800, I’m guessing to a Chicago stockyard.
Jack Jack’s future may be short, but I think A’s is promising. Although I didn’t see it, when I saw my sister-in-law later in the week, she said that A got reserve champion (second best in the whole fair) for her Swiss heifer calf.
I saw A joking around with the neighbor’s son, who is a year younger and was also showing a steer and a calf, so I asked SIL if there was any chance of a romance.
“No,” SIL said. “No, no, no. She better not marry a farmer.”