Camp of Champions shows Wisconsin's best of the best of junior exhibitors

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
Junior lamb exhibitors wait to enter the ring during the Champion Breed Selection Wednesday, Aug. 11.

For many kids and teens in the agriculture world, showing your animal at the fair is a yearly passion that takes hundreds of hours of dedication. For those junior exhibitors who qualify for the Wisconsin State Fair and get their animals to the Governor's Blue Ribbon Livestock Auction, the stakes are higher than ever.

It's tough even qualifying to be a state fair exhibitor of any animal, let alone getting to place well enough for your animal to be sold in the auction. But despite the odds, youths year after year earn the ribbons and titles they need to call the day a success. Only some of them are lucky enough to be named Grand Champion or Reserve Grand Champion.

Even so, the "Camp of Champions" at the Wisconsin State Fair's cattle barn is a place where all auction-qualifying junior exhibitors can show off their animal and talk to people about their journey to get where they are today.

Going from first meeting the animal to showing it on the auction floor, potentially earning tens of thousands of dollars to help finance their post-high school education, agriculture passion projects and other things, is a long and often hard journey. Eighteen-year-old Lauren Jones of Lafayette County, who showed the Champion Breed Steer – a 1,330-pound Hereford – said this was her second time qualifying for the auction. Both times, she said it was a shock to her and her family.

"This is my second time I've qualified for the auction, and both times it's been crazy, we weren't expecting it," Jones said. "This year is actually special because my family has been breeding and showing Hereford cattle for the past 40 years, and our goal was always doing the Hereford Sire show. We've come really, really close, but we haven't been able to get it until this year."

Lauren Jones with her Hereford Champion Breed Steer, which sold for $7,000.

Jones has been showing since she was five years old, and not only does she show in Wisconsin, she also shows heifers on a national level. Her Hereford sold for $7,000, which she said she's going to use for college. Jones is an incoming freshman at Oklahoma State University studying animal science and agriculture communications.

For Jones, it's in the family – she said she was "born into the industry" with her dad showing since he was 12, despite not being born into a farm family. He serves as her inspiration and mentor at every show she competes in and has worked with her for years to get ready for every one of them.

"We've worked our way up to be competitive at national shows and state-level shows and it's really amazing to see how hard he's worked to improve our breed and our family's arsenal of livestock," Jones said. "To go from the bottom to the top is pretty cool and I will be forever grateful for him that he's given me the opportunities to be in the Camp of Champions and be competitive."

For Jacee Johnson of Walworth County, she joins a legacy of Camp of Champions appearances with her siblings, and her father also showed "his entire life." Johnson's Champion Bred and Owned Lamb sold for $14,500 at the auction, the sixth-highest bid of the night. She said in order to succeed, you have to put in the work to get there.

"Just put in the work. It pays off in the end. Walk them every day, work on setting them up and ring presence, work on your showmanship skills, know what you're doing," Johnson said. "You just got to be confident. And then show day, get them all washed up and ready and looking good and you're set to go."

An incoming sophomore at UW-Madison studying animal science, Johnson said she enjoyed answering questions from Camp of Champions visitors, especially since her lamb's pen was right up front. Now 19, she's been showing for 11 years, six of those at the Wisconsin State Fair. She enjoys the chance to give advice to other exhibitors who want to end up at the Camp of Champions someday.

Jacee Johnson with her Champion Bred and Owned Lamb, which sold for $14,500.

"If people have questions, I'll be sitting right over here by my lamb. I'll be over here talking to people, answering their questions. I've already done that in the lamb barn," Johnson said. "Take advice from other exhibitors and older people. It'll take you a long way."

Isabelle Doherty of Jefferson County, whose Champion Bred and Owned Barrow also netted $7,000 at the auction, said she's especially proud to have made it so far as a bred and owned exhibitor because it's uncommon for show animals to be bred by their owner. She's been showing since she was two, and now 17, she's the last of her siblings to bring up the rear and finally get a spot at the auction.

"A lot of the animals in here are bought from a breeder. That's why it's so cool that I get to be in here now is because we raised them ourselves," Doherty said. "I'm the youngest of four, and my two older siblings who used to show cattle and sheep, they never made it in here. ... I do it for them. I do it to show them how hard I work."

The three or four days spent in the Camp of Champions each summer is the ultimate goal for all junior exhibitors in Wisconsin, Doherty said. She explained that the hours put into her passion of showing barrows is what caused her to miss parties, football games and get-togethers throughout high school and college. But, Doherty, said, it's all worth it to see the end result.

Isabella Doherty with her Champion Bred and Owned Barrow, which sold for $7,000.

Despite being in competition, Doherty said the Camp of Champions unites everyone in the ring because they all share a common passion for livestock and agriculture. She said every year youth get better and better at raising their animals, getting them ready to show and putting on the finishing touches. She said the best part is just being able to display your pride for what you love to do.

"Part of being in this camp is we get to talk to every single person that comes through here and we get to show them what our industry is, and they see the best part. They don't get to see all the hard work that happens at home all summer," Doherty said. "(It was) an incredible summer for me. We travel all across the country and with (my animal) to get him here. It takes more work than most people know."