Livestock show goes on despite pandemic
Since they were little girls, Brooke and Morgan Cooper couldn't wait for the county fair to roll around. For months leading up to the mid-July event, the Mount Calvary sisters worked hard with their string of dairy and meat goats and heifers, preparing them for the show ring.
"Some years we'd bring over 20 goats between the two of us along with a couple of cows and heifers," said Brooke, 19.
What the Coopers most enjoyed was the camaraderie with fellow 4-H members and FFA kids also showing animals at the fair.
"It's hard with all of the fairs getting cancelled, especially the state fair, because that's the only time of the year that you're able to see some of the friends you've made while showing," Morgan said.
This is a bittersweet year for Brooke, who showed her string of goats for the last time at the modified Fond du Lac County fair this week.
"It's kind of a hard year to go out on," she said. "But so many other fairs had to cancel and I'd be devastated if I didn't get a last year to show."
While the Fair Board has put together a modified version of the fair, it's noticeably different with fewer exhibitors, and just a handful of spectators spread out inside the cavernous Cow Palace.
"When the fair board started meeting, they were committed to doing whatever we could even if it had to be something virtual," said Fair Board President Katie Grinstead. "We spent countless hours planning on how we would make this happen: we hired cleaning crews, have hand sanitizer stations everywhere and have the shows spread out over the week - whatever we could do to make sure we had a safe and fun show."
While many exhibitors camp out at the fair during the week in order to care for their animals housed in the dairy and livestock barns, this year exhibitors trucked their animals into the fair, set up temporary pens and fitting areas out in the grassy area of the parking lot and readied them for the show. With the exception of the pigs, all animals were then loaded into their respective trailers and trucked back to the farm.
Grinstead says the market livestock auction will be held inside the larger Expo Building to allow for more social distancing among buyers and spectators. With no animals in tow, pictures of the exhibitor along with their animals will be shown on a large screen while buyers bid on them.
"When we started this process, we heard from the buyers who told us they wanted to come and have an auction," Grinstead said, "so we began brainstorming and this is what we came up with."
Trisha Schwanke of Waupun says she is grateful that her daughter, Katie, had the opportunity to show her lambs and hogs for the last time before heading off to college.
"She's had so many things cancelled during her senior year of high school. And with no collegiate FFA, this is it," Schwanke said.
Katie, who has spent six hours a day working with her hogs and lambs since March, said she's grateful for the opportunity to show her livestock.
"I feel badly for all of the kids who didn't get the chance to show this year, but I hope they stick with it and have the opportunity next year," she said.
Grinstead said the number of animals slated to be shown at the fair this year is down due to exhibitors choosing to bring only one market animal instead of two.
"And there are some families who didn't feel comfortable coming," she said.
Brian Loehrke says his young daughter, Ebbie Thoma-Loehrke, continued to work with her lamb despite not knowing whether or not she would even step into a show ring.
"As fairs began announcing cancellations, a lot of people sold their animals or decided not to buy them but we kept hoping and preparing for the fair," said Loehrke, adding that his daughter typically shows animals at 5-6 shows every year.
"Even if I couldn't show my lamb the most important part was the learning process and getting better each day," said Ebbie who garnered her second consecutive grand championship with her market lamb.
Mineral Point FFA advisor and market lamb judge Michael Robinson said the year has been full of question marks since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
"You're not sure of what's happening from one day to the next but youth like the ones here in Fond du Lac County kept preparing their animals in hopes that they got to that end point," Robinson said. "Luckily for this group, the fair board was able to put something together for them."
Robinson says his own children and FFA students are hoping their Iowa County Fair – postponed until Labor Day weekend – will still happen.
"The kids are optimistic that they will be able to show but I think in the back of their minds they know that each day things get cancelled that they were planning on, and they've had a few of them already. Another concern of theirs is how school will be held in the fall. So, they're anxious about those things happening."
While the barns are void of chattering youth, bellering livestock and colorful displays identifying the individual 4-H clubs and FFA Chapter exhibits, the Coopers are trying to make the best of the stripped down fair.
"Right now the fairgrounds looks like it does each summer before the fair comes. It's pretty empty looking," Brooke said. "But we're hoping to come back to the fair later in the week when it opens and hopefully walk down the Midway and find some fair food and watch the fireworks."
Freelance farm broadcaster RaeNell Halbur has decades of county fairs under her belt as an open class exhibitor, 4-H leader and mom of three kids who all showed at the fair. Over the years Halbur has interviewed countless youth who have paraded animals around the show ring.
"I don't think the win this year is going to be in blue ribbons and livestock auction checks. I think that the win is that youth are going to learn perseverance," she said. "That's a very important part of the 4-H and FFA process which is learning all different kinds of things and this year – no matter what life throws at you – there's a way to get the job done."