Maryland State Fair means competition — and the circle of life — for young farmers

Published on: August 26, 2022 6:00 AM EDT

In the summer evenings, after the air has cooled down, Alivia Blum, 18, walks her goats up the hill behind her family’s home in rural Baltimore County and back again. Afterward, she sits in their pen and feeds them hay and, as a treat, Cheez-Its.

Trixie and Kitty are picky eaters, but they absolutely love Cheez-Its.

This week, Blum is loading up her animals and heading to Timonium, where she’ll be one of hundreds of young farmers to enter the Maryland State Fair’s livestock shows.

For all the emphasis on rides and peach sundaes, agriculture kids like Blum are the core of what the state fair is all about. Thousands of young people come from across the state to participate. Some showcase their livestock, while others present handmade crafts or baked goods.

Inside the Cow Palace, they’ll walk their animals, from alpacas to swine, as judges assess the animals’ appearance and behavior, as well as the communication skills of their owners.

All the categories are fiercely competitive, with many spending months or even years getting their animals ready to show.

“Nobody comes into the crazy game of showing livestock not to win,” said Blum, who graduated in June from Hereford High School and has been participating in 4-H since she was 5. She has been known to blow off her friends to tend to her animals, and to have long, one-way conversations with her sheep and goats. She calls them her support system.

“I think it’s more competitive than sports,” said 15-year-old Andrew Knatz of Hampstead, in Carroll County, who is going into his sophomore year at Manchester Valley High School and will be showing nine pigs at this year’s fair. For “livestock kids” like him, “You’re just focused, you’re locked in on that one goal, and that goal is to win.”

Donna G. Myers, president of the board of directors of the Maryland State Fair, says the annual event offers an important chance for young farmers to bridge the gap with consumers.

“People don’t understand where their food comes from,” said Myers. “Back maybe three generations ago, the majority of people had a connection” to farms, she said. “Either they were on a farm or their grandparents were.” Now, she says, farmers make up a “very small minority” of the population, although agriculture represents the state’s largest commercial industry.

And for the kids who participate, the livestock shows offer a chance to learn the immense responsibility and sometimes heartbreak that comes with raising animals.

Knatz has cared for his pigs from the time they were born, so even at 200 pounds, they’re “calm and docile, gentle giants,” rolling on their backs for belly rubs when he greets them after school. Two years ago, one mama pig gave birth to some runts and then rejected them. Knatz brought the piglets inside to keep them warm by the fire, feeding them with a bottle every few hours.

During the pandemic and online school, he was able to devote even more time to working with his pigs, training them to walk wherever he went.

“That’s probably one of the best years I’ve done in showmanship,” he said. “I was just outside working all the time with my animals.”

Buying and raising livestock for show can be a costly endeavor. Even as he’s preparing for this year’s fair, which he calls “the funnest part of my summer,” Knatz is thinking about how to gain an edge for next year’s events.

“I’m trying to convince my dad to buy two from a big breeder out west,” he said. The animals can run up to $1,000 or more; Knatz says he wants to split the cost with his father.

Youth that show livestock at the fair are members of groups like 4-H or Future Farmers of America, which prepare young people for a career in agriculture. The competitions at state fairs help them build vital life skills, but, “It doesn’t hurt that they have fun and meet new friends in the process,” said Nia Imani Fields, assistant director of the University of Maryland Extension, who leads the 4-H program across the state.

Fields is quick to point out that 4-H clubs aren’t just for kids in rural areas who have animals. Groups operate in every county in Maryland and in Baltimore City, and offer programs on topics from financial literacy to photography. “We want all people to feel a sense of belonging in our 4-H,” she said.

“We’re all practically family,” said Ashlynn Kidwell, a 17-year-old rising senior at Century High School in Carroll County, of her local 4-H club. Though Kidwell keeps chickens as a hobby, she’s equally interested in the leadership and public speaking skills she’s gained through her years in 4-H, which stands for “Head, Heart, Hands and Health.”

Livestock kids are immensely proud and devoted to their animals, even as they may try to keep an emotional distance.

“I want them to live the best life they can,” Kidwell said, even if in the back of her mind, she’s remembering: “It’s going to end up in the freezer.”

It’s an outlook that Myers says is shared among 4-H youth, and one that helps foster a lifelong commitment to the ethical treatment of livestock.

Most animals that perform well in the market competition are sold at a livestock auction during the fair. Placing into the auction is considered an honor — judges select only the cream of the crop. Bidders pay a premium, often well above market rates. And the proceeds can help kids recoup what they spent on their animals, or serve as a down payment on next year’s entries.

But for their young owners, the livestock sale can be a bittersweet moment and, like so much in farming, a reminder of the circle of life.

“Emotionally, it can be a very intense night,” Myers said of the event, which is scheduled for Monday. At the same time, it teaches youth the sometimes disappointing business of running a farm. “I think farm kids have a different perspective on things.”

A few years ago, Blum cried saying goodbye to a Boer goat named Festus. The goat “knew he was good,” Blum said. He looked the judge straight in the eyes before being named grand champion market goat. And then he was gone — off to “feed the world,” Blum said.

This year, though, her last in youth 4-H competitions, will be a little different. Blum plans to breed her goats after the fair is over, and sell their offspring to other 4-H kids.

Win or lose, Trixie and Kitty are coming home.

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