Youth exhibitors grateful for opportunities to show

Jan Shepel
Swine exhibitors try to catch the eye of the judge in the show ring while youngsters crowd the gates to watch older siblings compete.

The annual county or local agricultural fair is the culmination of many months – or even years – or hard work for junior exhibitors. Livestock exhibitors have purchased show stock, investing time and hard-earned money for an animal they hope will stand at the top of the class or category as they are evaluated by a judge.

This year as the coronavirus pandemic swept across the United States and through Wisconsin, many fairs have been cancelled. Some events have been modified to allow these young people to show the animals they have been working with. In some cases livestock auctions are being arranged so these junior exhibitors can still sell their meat animals.

Mark Ryan, vice president of the Fond du Lac County Agricultural Society said one of the reasons his county’s fair board decided to move ahead with a modified fair was the importance of the fair to the junior exhibitors who bring their projects to the fair. “Most of the people on the fair board started with animals or vegetables or woodworking. We all believe that’s the real purpose of the fair,” he said, in a telephone interview.

RELATED: Youth livestock exhibitors, parents find a way to move forward

Of the fairs in the state that have had to cancel, he’s sure that not one of them was done by choice – it was a decision that they were forced into. He works with an active group of volunteers on making the market livestock show and sale a success each year at the Fond du Lac County Fair. “I enjoy working with them. You don’t have to worry about things getting done, and getting done the right way,” he says. “We have a great fair board and a great livestock committee. I’ve been on the fair board 14 years and all I have to do is call these people and they are there.”

Livestock exhibitors prepare their animals for the show ring, the final stage where youth can show off their hard work.

When it comes to market livestock at this year’s modified fair, the committee is limiting showing to one species per day – sheep on Monday, steers on Tuesday, pigs on Wednesday and dairy cattle on Friday. Small animals are also being shown at the fair, he adds. At the end of each day, those animals that are at the fair will head home. (The exception will be market hogs, which can’t go home for biosecurity reasons.)

The normal fair schedule has a livestock auction on Thursday evening, but this year it will be on Wednesday evening, he explained. No real animals will be present for the sale, but will be represented by their exhibitors and photos.

“The junior exhibitors have been very appreciative that we’re doing something where they can show their animals, and parents have expressed their appreciation too,” Ryan said. “It would have been a lot easier to cancel everything, because during our normal fair, everybody knows what to do and where to go and it always falls into place.

“This year we are trying to do the best we can to give people something to look forward to. Everybody’s got to work together to get through this and hopefully it will all turn out,” he added.

RELATED: Sen. Stroebel says UW Extension 'undermining' 4-H program

For 4-H and FFA livestock exhibitors, many had already purchased market animals and they were already weighed-in and entered in the fair, when the quarantine orders went out, he adds.

Working as chairman of the livestock show and sale at the fair, Ryan said he has reached out to the traditional buyers who purchase lambs, hogs and steers at the fair. “They want to be there and they want to buy. We are very blessed with large contributors and supporting businesses.

“I’m sure when this is all over there will be a lot of thank you’s,” he adds.

Rod Drendel

Rod Drendel has had a ringside seat to many livestock sales as he helped out at various county fairs. He is a parent of former youth exhibitors – his daughters showed beef, dairy and horses – and knows how important each year’s fair is for those youth to highlight the work they have put in with their projects.

As a volunteer auctioneer at many fair sales, he sees the importance of that livestock auction. “The 4-Hers have that opportunity to show their animals and that sale money often goes into the college fund or into advancing those projects for the next year,” he said. “There’s so much uncertainty right now, but several counties are looking at ways to go forward with a livestock auction.”

The timing this year was really unfortunate, he adds. It was late enough that most of the junior exhibitors had already secured their project animals – beef steers were likely purchased last fall. “This is turning into a real life lessons for our youth exhibitors,” he adds.

Katie Schwanke, a 4-H and FFA member, is one of those young people learning a life lesson this year. It’s really important to her that organizers are making every effort to allow youth like her to exhibit animals this summer. The high school senior shows pigs and sheep and this year marks her second-to-last year of show ring eligibility.

Katie Schwanke

She began showing sheep at the age of 11 or 12, she says, because it was a family tradition. Her grandparents, mom and uncles had all showed sheep. “Most of the family showed and have raised sheep forever – crossbreds, Hampshires and Southdowns. We show wethers and ewes.”

In a normal year, she would show at the Fond du Lac and Dodge County Fairs. This year’s fair in Fond du Lac will be a modified event, but will still allow her to show her project animals. Dodge County’s fair is cancelled but a committee is working to get a Youth Expo event organized in August.

Though Schwanke is disappointed there will be no Wisconsin State Fair this year, she’s philosophical about it. “It is what it is,” she said.

She’s happy that she will be able to sell animals at both the modified Fond du Lac County Fair and at the Youth Expo in Dodge County.

Serena Freriks, who normally shows at the Alto Fair in the tiny hamlet of Alto near Waupun, will be attending the University of Wisconsin-River Falls next year and thinks it unlikely that she will be showing her beloved hogs next summer.

Serena Freriks, who normally shows at the Alto Fair in the tiny hamlet of Alto near Waupun, says the “chances of me showing next year are very slim. I’m pretty bummed because this is pretty much the last chance for me to do what I love.”

She will be enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls next year and thinks it unlikely that she will be showing her beloved hogs next summer. She’s pleased that organizers are putting together an alternative livestock show for those who would have shown at the Alto Fair. “I’m pretty excited and waiting to hear more information because I think it’s going to work out for me to participate in that one.”

Freriks has been showing hogs since eighth grade when she joined other family members who looked like they were having fun showing pigs. She grew up with dairy cattle and tried her hand at showing them, but it was the market hogs that she really took a shine to.

“One thing I didn’t grasp until a few years ago was that it’s such a strong thing for the agricultural industry to know that these hogs are being raised properly and providing a great product for consumers,” she said. “And that just made me want to do it even more.”

Kelby Fossum, who lives near Lodi, has been showing dairy cattle since he was four or five years old, when he showed a March calf belonging to a local dairy farm. Now 17, he traveled to Iowa to make sure he got to exhibit the dairy heifers he has been working with.

Kelby Fossum, Lodi, center, traveled to Waukon, Iowa for the chance to show his dairy project animals since the fair he normally shows at in Lodi and his Holstein District Show were both cancelled. He teamed up with his cousins, Elizabeth Fossum, right, and Thomas Fossum to take care of a large string of show cattle at the event.

“I grew up showing at the Lodi Fair and then expanded into Holsteins shows, including the State show and World Dairy Expo,” he said. The little community of Lodi puts on a fair that features more competition in dairy than some of the area’s county fairs, he added.

When fairs started cancelling “it was disappointing,” he said, “not just for me but for every kid that looks forward to working hard on a project throughout the spring and then taking it to the fair.”

He works with a show string that includes all Holsteins this year, but Fossum has also showed Jersey and Guernsey cattle. He recently won Senior Showmanship honors and Junior Champion with a Red Holstein fall heifer he’s been working with. Those awards came in Waukon, Iowa, where he traveled to show his animals alongside his cousins who live there.

While at that Iowa show, Fossum showed four of the Holsteins he’s been working with. “I like that you get to meet new people and learn new things.” The opportunity to show in Iowa was especially welcome this year because so many opportunities were cancelled in Wisconsin. He’s only gone there once before to show with his cousins in their home state.

His dad grew up on the family farm just 15 minutes away from Waukon, so at this show it was a team effort, and lots of help was available. “All my cousins were there and will all that help, you can take more cattle.”

Asked if the dairy show in the era of the coronavirus was different from others in the past he said he didn’t notice a big difference. “Honestly, it was pretty close to normal. You bring all your own stuff and no one else really uses it. Normally at a fair or a show, I’m in a chair watching the cattle or taking care of them in the barn and that’s what I did this time.”

The district Holstein show he would have gone to in Wisconsin was also cancelled, so exhibitors who would have shown there have been allowed to show in another district. He’s getting ready to head for that show soon.

For junior exhibitors who have market animals, there is an opportunity. The Wisconsin Livestock Expo has been organized to crown state champions in barrows, gilts, market lambs, breeding sheep, steers and heifers. That event is slated for August 9-14 at the Racine County Fairgrounds in Union Grove.

The show is not affiliated with the Wisconsin State Fair, but the rules and regulations that are normally followed at State Fair will be followed at this one, organizers said. Exhibitors who were eligible to show at the 2020 Wisconsin State Fair Junior Show are eligible to show at the Wisconsin Livestock Expo.

The show was organized as an opportunity for junior livestock exhibitors to replace the State Fair which was cancelled. “If you are too young or too old to show at the 2020 Wisconsin State Fair, you are not able to exhibit in this show. While we would like to include everyone, this show is ultimately for the kids who lost their State Fair show,” their website states.

Judges for the show will come in from Texas, Kansas, Indiana, Missouri, Illinois and Iowa.

More information and registration material is available on their website –