'I Belong In a Barn'
Each October, the N.C. State Fair beckons visitors with bright lights, whirling rides and the savory-sweet smell of deep-fried food.
Moore County 4-Hers
Members of the Moore County Growing Farmers 4-H Livestock Club competed in livestock shows at the N.C. State Fair last week. Forget the rides, games and food, these kids enjoy getting to show off a year's worth of hard work raising livestock.
But long before all those sights, sounds and smells, the fair was for celebrating the most prevalent industry in North Carolina: agriculture.
First held in 1853 by the North Carolina State Agricultural Society, the fair was an annual gathering to showcase the latest scientific advancements in farming and to highlight the best livestock, crops, machinery and homemade goods produced around the state.
This year’s theme, “A Bumper Crop of Fun,” hearkens back to those early days, when thousands clamored to learn about the newest techniques in agriculture.
For members of the Moore County Growing Farmers 4-H Livestock Club, agriculture is still at the heart of the state fair. It’s where they come to show off a year’s worth of hard work and, more importantly, to learn and commune through their livestock.
Last week, the club loaded trailers and headed to Raleigh to show the cattle, goats and turkeys they’ve spent the last year raising.
4-H is one of the largest youth programs in the U.S., with more than 6 million young participants. The program’s four Hs — Hands, Heart, Head and Health — promote a greater sense of leadership and community service with a “learn-by-doing” approach to science and health.
Moore County’s program, like all N.C. 4-H programs, is guided by educators and volunteers through the N.C. Cooperative Extension Office.
Sherry Howie, youth coordinator for the 4-H livestock club, says the club exposes children to aspects of agriculture that some wouldn’t encounter otherwise.
Howie stresses that though some members have farming backgrounds, children don’t have to come from the farm to show livestock. That approach is a good thing for the club, considering that Moore County has lost 20,000 acres of farmland to urbanization pressures since 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture.
With 25 members, and 17 actively showing livestock, numbers have grown by word of mouth. Meetings are the second Monday of the month, when members discuss and prepare for events, such as running the livestock barn at the Moore County Fair, hosting the Livestock Fair Show each September, or traveling to shows around the state.
“People are willing to let them come work on their farms and show [animals],” Howie says. “You don't have to live on a farm or own livestock. We try to bring the farm to the children.”
A Cow for a Present
Though she will age out of the 4-H livestock club this year, Sable Scott, the club’s president, can’t imagine life without it.
“Once a 4-Her, always a 4-Her,” she says, noting that she attended every 4-H summer camp as a child.
Cows have been part of her life since her grandfather took her to her first cow auction at 8 years old. For $10, she purchased a struggling day-old calf.
“I was the happiest little girl in the world,” Scott says grinning.
Children can begin showing livestock in 4-H after 8 years old, but Scott didn’t begin until she was a freshman at North Moore High School after a friend encouraged her to try it.
She began working at Travis Farm in West End, and instantly fell in love showing the Angus cows bred there.
Managing time between school, extracurriculars and her cows over the years has always been a fine balance to strike, but Scott just shrugs. For her, the 30-minute drives for those early morning feedings before school, subsequent trips after school, and late nights finishing homework were all worth it.
“It was nothing to not leave till 7 or 8 p.m.,” she says. “It’s about building trust with the animal.”
After graduation last June, Scott was surprised with an envelope that held the bill of sale for Lil’ Annie, a cow she grew especially close to at the farm while showing this year.
“Most people ask for cars for graduation,” she says. “I got a cow. It’s awesome!”
Since then, she’s anticipated showing Lil’ Annie as her own at the state fair and, afterward, being able to take it home to her grandparents’ farm in Robbins.
Photos of Lil’ Annie hang next to Scott’s bed in her dorm room at N.C. State University, where the freshman plans to major in agricultural engineering with a minor in either agriculture business or agricultural science.
“What about pictures of your family?” her roommate asked her when they moved in.
“She is my family,” Scott replied.
Her studies are a priority, but Scott admits that choosing between cows and college is difficult.
While many of her classmates spent their fall break celebrating the N.C. State football team’s surprise win over Florida State University, Scott, a huge Wolfpack fan, was home in Moore County after a long day of showing cows at the Robeson County Fair.
“It’s tough, but my heart is here [in Moore County] all the time,” she says. “[Annie’s] my little girl.”
At least for the state fair show, Scott’s cows visited her for a change.
While fairgoers flood the midways, the Jim Graham Building is busy as entrants prepare for the cattle shows. Groups from all over the state set up for the long haul with cleanly bedded stalls for their cows next to booths offering lawn chairs and plenty of food to go around. Some dare to bring flowers, microwaves and mini fridges to make life in the barn more accommodating.
Cows are constantly washed, dried, brushed, trimmed and coiffed.
“Some of these cows get treated better than some people,” Scott says.
Handlers file into the show ring with their cows and place them in a stance to define the characteristics of the breed. Among several categories, judges evaluate stride, muscle tone and appearance, as well as the handler’s ability to show the cow.
Scott dreams of attending bigger shows on the national level, and her approach to competition reflects that.
“I treat ’em all like we’re on the national level, and we’re rolling big,” she says. “If you get a big head, you get knocked down.”
She’s learned that with this perspective, “there’s no heartbreak when you don’t win.”
Victory is still sweet, though. On Oct. 13, Scott took first place showing an Angus heifer named Lucy, though the cow was the only entrant in its class.
Before the Ring, the Wait
Show days start early for the 4-H livestock club. Members sleep in the barn the night before to get a head start, rising before sunrise to wash cows, clip them, brush them and prepare them for show.
Despite the early rush, judging for the various breeds and classifications takes time. Thus begins the game of “hurry up and wait,” as the group likes to call it — so much time spent waiting for only minutes in the show ring.
Austin Cameron doesn’t mind the wait. The junior at Union Pines High School passes the time hanging out with his friends and family at the booth, playing his banjo and periodically checking on his Santa Gertrudis cows, who are just as content to stay put for the time being.
“Being around cows, to me, is fun,” he says. “I’ve always enjoyed it.”
Like Scott, he also got his start showing Angus cows at Travis Farm, but when his father, Thomas Cameron, decided to start raising cows again at the family’s farm in Carthage, he switched breeds and has been showing Santa Gertrudis for his family since.
As handlers rush to get their cows to the ring, Cameron’s experience shows. He is calm as he firmly leads his 15-month-old red heifer, Rosie, into the ring, his eyes focused on the judge in the center.
“When I get in the ring, all I can do is just be natural, just be confident about myself because either way, you’re going to come and go into the ring,” Cameron says. “I just think of it as an opportunity that not many people have.”
Cameron knows what it takes to make it to the big-time cattle shows: a lot of early mornings and late nights spent feeding, washing and walking cows.
Two years ago, his cow won grand champion at the state fair. The following year, he won the same prize at the South Carolina State Fair.
He has competed in cattle shows around the Southeast, driving as far west as Kingsville, Texas, to compete in the National Santa Gertrudis Junior Heifer Show, as well as the N.C. Junior Beef Round-Up and several local county shows.
“I like doing the county shows because when you get to the state fair, you’re more polished, and you get more experience when you’re showing,” he says.
Cameron also enjoys being able to share his abilities with his younger cousins, who are able to show his family’s cows.
This year, his cousin, Harley Brigman, is showing at the fair for the first time.
“We go back and forth,” he says about competing with his cousin.
“I’d rather be competing against Austin than other people,” Brigman says. “That way I don’t feel bad if I lose.”
That wasn’t the case for Brigman Oct. 13. Her cow took first over her cousin’s, which took second, in one of the day’s competitions.
Thomas Cameron takes pride in his son’s dedication, pointing out that Austin does most of the work raising animals himself.
“It’s more than just a chore,” he says. “It’s something he has to really want to do.”
And Cameron hopes his son will continue raising cows as the family works to build up their farm’s herd.
“I’m trying to build something that I can leave for him,” he says.
Across from the Jim Graham Building, in the Exposition Center, Rebecca Carson doesn’t want anything to do with cattle as she waits to show.
It’s quieter and calmer here, with only punctuating bleats from curious goats in their pens.
“I love goats,” Carson says. “They’re cute, and they’re really funny. If you’re having a bad day, they will really cheer you up by the way they just run around and play”
As a first-time presenter at the state fair, Carson, 11, stays close to her goat, Dixie. She is nervous about being in a bigger venue with more competitors and spectators.
Carson started working with the South African Boer goat last January when it was 3 weeks old.
“We never thought we’d have goats,” Rebecca's mother, Leslie Carson, says. “But we’ve fallen in love with them. They’re little characters.”
The idea of purchasing livestock, let alone the space and equipment necessary to raise animals, got expensive quickly for the newcomers, but, through 4-H, the Carson family was able to borrow three goats to raise and show from Ithaca Farms, a meat goat farm in Raeford. After the fair, the goats will go back to the farm for breeding.
The Carsons had to get approval from their homeowners’ association and register their home in Vass as a farm before they could install a pen for the goats and house them.
“The neighbors have been really supportive about it,” Leslie Carson says.
Rebecca, her younger sister, Emily; their cousin Kodi Johnson; and their neighbor Lauren Voss work with their goats for about an hour each day, leading them around the pen, bracing them in their stance for show, and answering questions posed by Leslie that judges may ask in competition.
The family hopes to make the money back in earnings from shows this year to pay for next year’s expenses, which has taught the children a lot about sticking to a budget.
Leslie Carson and her husband, Robert, say they’ve watched Rebecca develop more self-confidence since she began raising her goat. She is more assertive, and a strong sense of responsibility is evident in her dedication to the goats.
“It’s also brought the family closer together because we all have to work together,” Leslie adds. “Raising goats doesn’t let you just sit on the couch.”
During competition, Carson, Johnson and Voss showed well in their classes, but the group was disappointed in the showmanship competition when the judge didn’t ask them questions about the goats.
Carson was already thinking of next year when the group was loading up the goats to head home to Moore County. She wants to work at Ithaca Farms through its kidding season like she did this past year. During that time, she plans to select a goat with stronger show qualities to raise.
“Hopefully it will be one of Dixie’s babies,” she says, smiling.
A Sense of Belonging
The music stops and the flashing lights dim as another year has come and gone. The empty agricultural buildings leave little trace of the bustling activity there only hours before.
The state fair is the final show of the year for the 4-H livestock club, but its members are already preparing for next year’s circuit of shows.
Lil’ Annie is settled at her new home in Robbins after the long weekend, and Scott anticipates raising Annie’s calf to show it next year as a collegiate 4-H member.
When she thinks back on her time spent showing cows with 4-H, Scott finds it hard to determine what her life would be without it.
“If I didn’t have these cows, I wouldn’t have ever been the leader that I am — to where I can step in and say, ‘We’re going to do this,’” she says. “My cows give me somewhere to go, something to look forward to, and a sense of completion when you walk in the ring, and you do what you do. I’ve lost friendships because of it, but I’ve gained so many more. It’s just a sense of belonging — I belong in a barn.”
She muses further.
“It’s one of those things that makes you happy,” Scott concludes. “You show because you want to, not because anybody makes you. You only show because of you, and that’s what I do.”
Contact Hannah Sharpe at (910) 693-2485 or email@example.com.
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