State Fair experience for youth creates bonds with animals, each other

Jordyn Noennig
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Britney Boelk (center) walks her cow at the Wisconsin State Fair early Friday morning.

WEST ALLIS - Long before the gates opened to the 2017 Wisconsin State Fair, farmers young and old were up before dawn tending to their livestock in barns on the fairgrounds.

"Every morning you have to wake up and get them some exercise, clean the stall and then get them breakfast," Kayle Grott of New Holstein said, while he was walking his 2-year-old Clydesdale horse. "(The horse) has never been off the farm before, so I wanted to bring him out just to get a look around at things before he competes and get him more well balanced." 

"We have to feed this morning, make sure they have clean water, then we'll start trimming," said Lloyd Burggener, about his plans to ready his sheep for the open competition ahead.

"But preparation really started several years ago with mating and picking the right breeding stock,"  said Burggener, who has competed at the Wisconsin State Fair for 57 years and received nearly 500 awards from the many fairs where he has competed.

Junior competitors play after finishing their morning chores at Wisconsin State Fair.

Getting up before dawn to care for livestock is daily routine for many back home. But what the fair adds is the camaraderie of fellow farmers before and after the gates close. 

"Everybody in the barn is like a big family. It's one of the coolest things," Grott said. 

"Everybody in the barn is like a big family. It's one of the coolest things," said Kayle Grott of New Holstein.

In particular, juniors (12-19 years old) bond while staying in the Tommy Thompson Youth Center dorms, and work together to care for animals.

Junior dairy competition is organized by county, so youth work together to care for livestock and create the best-looking exhibition.

"It's just like Boy Scouts or Girls Scouts. The kids are out doing the work and the elderly are here as mentors," said Rodney Bohnhoff, who competed as a junior from 1968 to 1976 and now chaperones juniors from Sheboygan County. 

Rodney Bohnhoff keeps watch over cows scheduled for junior competition.

"I've been coming here for a very long time. I enjoy it," he said. 

Staying in the Thompson center does resemble a summer camp experience for juniors with roll call in the morning, communal breakfast in the dorms, group activities, and even crafts as junior competitors are required to make displays of information pertaining to the dairy industry. Also like summer camps, good friendships form during these fair visits.

"This is my third year doing this and I've met a lot of people here," said Britney Boelk, a junior competing for Fond Du Lac County. "I actually met my best friend here when I started showing, and I don't get to see him a lot so it's nice I get to spend time with him here for the week." 

Time spent at the fair comes after hard work to get there.

"Training pigs has taught me and the kids a lot of patience, a lot of structure and responsibility, and a lot of hard work because you have to work with these pigs all summer long," said Kayla Merrill of Stoughton, who learned how to train pigs from her now-fiancé a few years ago. 

"It's a lot of fun," she said. "And teamwork is the most important part."