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Fair cancellations disrupt junior livestock auctions

Issue Date: April 22, 2020
By Ching Lee
In this file photo, students show livestock at a county fair. Many fairs have been canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, creating a potential hardship for youth and junior livestock exhibitors.

As government bans on mass gatherings force county fairs to cancel across California, event organizers and supporters work to soften the economic blow to an agricultural institution that has served as a venue for entertainment, education and community socialization.

One focus has been on the potential hardship facing youth and junior livestock exhibitors. Some fairs draw hundreds of student participants who invest time and money on their livestock projects, in some cases incurring loans, said Jay Carlson, agriculture programs manager for the California State Fair and fairs consultant manager for the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

Perhaps a bigger concern, he said, is whether fairs that are already struggling financially will be able to survive the cancellations, as many of them rely on event revenue.

"Unless you've got a pretty hefty reserve, you might not be able to have a fair next year," he said.

For now, fairs are "doing everything they can to try to help and support their community, including these junior livestock kids," Carlson said, noting that fairs have taken different approaches, including hosting online sales, postponing livestock events and making other accommodations to sell the animals.

Carlson, who oversees rules for California fairs, said the state will release standard operating procedures for use during the pandemic to assist fairs trying to provide market options for junior livestock. They include guidelines for collecting and working with the animals so that people maintain proper social-distancing requirements and other restrictions, he said.

"Everybody wants to help and do what they can," he said, "but there are some limitations."

Some fairgrounds, for example, now serve as homeless shelters or as field hospitals, he noted. Even fairs conducting virtual auctions must find a way to collect animals for processing, he added.

Jim Clark, manager of the Merced County Spring Fair, which was to run April 19 to May 3 before being canceled, said initial plans to use the county fairgrounds as an inspection drop-off point for livestock were scrapped when the site became a virus testing station and used for hospital overflow. The fair has moved inspections to Dos Palos Y Auction, whose owners "are graciously letting us use their sales yard," Clark said.

The fair plans to pool all sales proceeds and other donations, and then distribute the money equally among participants, he said, though he has encouraged students to seek private buyers and other outlets.

"We're literally doing this on our dime. We're not taking any commissions," Clark said, noting fair organizers and board members have reached out to hundreds of businesses and individuals for support. "We really need to help these kids meet their financial responsibilities."

People familiar with junior livestock auctions agreed students will likely receive lower returns on their show animals marketed outside of the traditional live auctions at fairs. Community support for agricultural youth organizations such as 4-H and FFA typically generates premiums "well above market value," said Matt Patton, executive director of the California Agricultural Teachers' Association and California FFA Foundation.

With many local businesses shut down and facing financial hardships due to the pandemic, Patton said he expects student earnings—often used to help finance college or reinvest in future projects—will be "greatly reduced."

"My heart just breaks for the kids," said rancher Sheree Ryan, who raises show steers and heifers in Kern County. "The sad thing is a lot of these animals aren't going to ever make it to the showroom."

Earlier this month, the Wood-Claeyssens Foundation, which buys animals sold at junior livestock fair auctions and donates the meat to food banks, notified fairs it typically supports—including those in Santa Barbara, Ventura, San Luis Obispo and Kern counties—that it would not participate this year due to impacts from COVID-19.

"I think that's really going to hurt those kids at those fairs," said Tulare County rancher Mike Rivas, who raises and breeds club calves.

Amy Bohlken, an agriculture teacher at Sierra High School in Manteca, said some of her students have had both parents laid off, and they are "having to make some really hard decisions," including whether to terminate the projects early because they can't afford to continue feeding the animals. Others have loans to pay off. Her goal, she said, is to "get the kids all their costs back," though she acknowledged it will be difficult due to the economic challenges caused by the pandemic.

But she said this year's setbacks also represent a teaching opportunity and an important lesson for her students, many of whom don't come from agricultural backgrounds.

"There's no guarantees," said Lynn Schmitt-McQuitty, statewide 4-H director for the University of California, pointing out that even under normal circumstances, animals could become ill or die before reaching the fair.

Students who are now participating in virtual auctions will have the opportunity to learn a new skill set, she said, including how to photograph or videotape their animals. This experience, she added, could prepare young people "for what reality is like if you become a rancher or a producer."

Noting that several million head of livestock are sold via online and video auctions in the U.S. each year, Holly Foster, production and marketing manager for Western Video Market in Cottonwood, encouraged fair boards to seek out those services as an option for junior livestock, so they could still provide students the experience of raising livestock for a project and then marketing the animals.

Mary Ann Bush of the California Junior Livestock Association said fair cancellations have led to other trickle-down effects.

As someone who raises project animals in San Benito County, she said she now has "a pen full of goats" that she's unsure she'll be able to sell, as students who planned on competing in fairs this coming fall may not want to buy them for fear those events will also be called off.

Dennis Moench, a hog producer in Tulare County, said 85% to 90% of his sales go to 4-H and FFA members and people having private parties.

Since COVID-19, his business "has almost come to a screeching halt," he said, noting that with the exception of one family who bought a show pig this month, he has had "no calls." Knowing that the student was buying the pig for an online auction, Moench said he couldn't charge the family a full price for the animal.

"In these tough times, I just can't do that to the kids," he said.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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