Despite cancellation, still opportunities for youth exhibitors

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
Each year market livestock exhibitors compete for scholarship monies from the Blue Ribbon Sale of Champions Foundation.

Many Wisconsinites are disappointed that the state fair and other county fairs are being canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but there are still opportunities for youth exhibitors to show off their talents without a crowd to watch.

Mary Beth Carr of the Blue Ribbon Sale of Champions Foundation, which provides scholarships to junior state fair exhibitors, said the scholarship program will not be canceled this year even though the contest and auction are.

Carr said the foundation received a record 54 applications this spring, which are currently being evaluated for winning placements. Twenty-six of the applicants will receive scholarships between $2,000 and $500 for a total of $30,000.

“We have been fortunate that many of our 2019 Governor’s Blue Ribbon Livestock Auction buyers donated their auction purchases back to us to sell to our processor with the funds going to support our 2020 scholarship program,” Carr said.

Keen disappointment

Katie Schwanke said she’s sad she won’t be able to show her pigs and sheep this year. She said it’s her last year of eligibility for exhibitions after showing for a decade. While her county hasn’t canceled its fair yet, she said leaders are discussing the issue.

“It’s really sad because that means that the other fairs are starting to cancel,” Schwanke said. “It could be my last year and I don’t get to show.”

She said she also decorates cakes at fairs every year and wins awards for them. She said she’s disappointed that kids around Wisconsin won’t be able to show off their projects even though they’ve been working on them throughout the year.

Youth exhibitors from across the state will not have the opportunity to compete against one another this summer due to the Wisconsin State Fair - and many county fairs being cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Bernie O’Rourke, a youth livestock specialist with the Department of Animal Sciences - UW Madison, expressed regret for the kids who won’t have the chance to display their animals during fair season, especially because the exhibitions serve as avenues for growth through feedback and positive encouragement from judges.

But O’Rourke also said there are still opportunities out there – some counties have been having virtual shows or one-day shows complying with public health regulations since the Safer at Home order was lifted.

“[We’re] helping youth exhibitors find areas or places for their food products and making sure that that can still happen,” O’Rourke said. “I think young people will market their animals.”

One concern many families have is the ability to sell and process their animals – more animals will likely go to the open market this year than usual, O’Rourke said. However, she also mentioned that fairs still have good relationships with meat processing companies where youths who would have entered competitions would still have priority spots open for processing.

She said many processors are fully booked well into 2021 because of fears of a meat shortage, but despite that, youth exhibitors will still get a chance to have their animal processed.

Fairs should also be emphasizing other projects kids and teens have been working on, O’Rourke said, like needlepoint, gardening, photography and woodworking. Doing that would allow youth exhibitors to show off their talents in ways other than seeing the market livestock projects.

“Being able to get back together is what we all want in the end,” O’Rourke said. “I hope and pray that we can all join together safely … and do the things that we love.”

The Wisconsin 4-H Foundation will be losing out on nearly a third of its annual funds due to the cancellation of the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Meat Products Auction held at the state fair every year. However, executive director Brenda Scheider said she’s confident the auction’s regular sponsors, donors and buyers will pull through and continue to support the mission of the foundation.

"They love 4-H too"

The Wisconsin 4-H Foundation will be losing out on nearly a third of its annual funds due to the cancellation of the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Meat Products Auction held at the state fair every year. However, executive director Brenda Scheider said she’s confident the auction’s regular sponsors, donors and buyers will pull through and continue to support the mission of the foundation.

“They love 4-H just like we do,” Scheider said. “We’re hopeful that we’ll be able to recruit some of those dollars just from outright contributions in lieu of event attendance.”

Scheider said the decision to cancel the auction came last Thursday, although the board has been considering all possible options for it to continue since March. The cancellation will not affect programming this year but will severely impact programming in 2021 if the foundation is not able to make up for the funds.

Family members of the reserve grand champion hog smile as bids roll in at the Governor's Blue Ribbon Auction at the Wisconsin State Fair.

The proceeds from the auction provide about $100,000 in funding, which helps pay for programming, promoting leadership, agriculture, the arts, STEM and shooting sports, Scheider said.

Some of the auction’s biggest sponsors include Meier, Wells Fargo and GO Riteway, all of whom, Scheider said, she is hopeful will continue their financial support despite the absence of an auction.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also affected some other 4-H events, like its annual art contest and auction held in October – they are now scheduled for April, but Scheider said that date is flexible depending on what happens between now and then.

“It’s a changing landscape and [we’re] trying to be responsive to that,” Scheider said. “The 4-H program has obviously had to make some difficult decisions about what programs are going to be held to keep our youth safe.”

Another opportunity

Plans are in the works to give exhibitors who were eligible to show at the 2020 Wisconsin State Fair Junior Show another opportunity to step into the show ring with their animals.

According Wisconsin Livestock Expo, the livestock industry group which is not affiliated with the Wisconsin State Fair is planning a replacement show for those exhibitors.

"As a lot of county fairs and the state fair was cancelled, there were a lot of kids around the state that haven't had a chance to show at all this year or maybe will not have that chance. We wanted to give them an event to be able to exhibit animals at the state fair level," said executive board member Erica Crouch.

"While we would like to include everyone, this show is ultimately for the kids who lost their State Fair show," according to the website.

As rumblings of cancellations of large events due to social distancing guidelines as a results of the pandemic began rolling across the country, Crouch said her group began putting together a plan back in March in case the state fair was cancelled.

"We were hoping that we wouldn't actually have to execute this event, but here we are. And I guess we're going to make the best of it," said the group on its Facebook page.

The group floated its show publicly soon after the State Fair officially announced its cancellation. The show will be following the rules and regulations of the 2020 State Fair as closely as possible.

Animals eligible for the alternative show include beef (steers and heifers), swine (barrows and gilts) and sheep (market lambs, commercial ewes and breeding sheep).

While Crouch hopes that the official location of the show will be announced Monday, the website notes that the events will be as held as closely as possible to the original 2020 Wisconsin State Fair Junior Show dates. For more details visit to sign up for updates.

A different role

Current Alice in Dairyland Abigail Martin said her role has changed extraordinarily since the pandemic hit. She’s had to reinvent the way she performs her role because travel is extremely restricted – she said that instead of going to events in person, she is now active on social media and also connects with people through videoconferencing and radio interviews.

Delores Krueger is congratulated by Alice in Dairyland Abigail Martin for receiving a Century Farm honor during the 2019 Wisconsin State Fair. Martin's job as the state's ag ambassador has changed greatly due to the cancellation of many festivals and June Dairy Month events.

The job is still very important, she said, but it’s being done differently.

“I think it’s more important even now that we share the importance of Wisconsin agriculture,” Martin said. “Our farmers [and] our processors don’t stop working even during this pandemic because they are still working hard to make sure we have … food on our store shelves.”

Martin said the 73rd Alice in Dairyland will be selected June 20th, and she will help her successor transition into the role during the unusual circumstances. Martin also said she hopes Wisconsinites show local farmers and processors their support by buying local when they can.

Cayley Vande Berg, this year’s Fairest of the Fairs who tours fairs across the state and helps host the Wisconsin State Fair, made a statement on her Facebook page May 29.

“My heart breaks for the exhibitors that will walk out to the barn and realize that this summer they will not have the chance to exhibit their animals at the fair,” the statement read. “I wish I could take the pain away.”

Colleen Kottke of the Wisconsin State Farmer contributed to this report.