by Sam Dolcini
On May 13th, I had the pleasure of attending the Santa Rosa Junior College Ag Trust’s Agstravaganza where local attorney, youth ag advocate, and Sonoma County Farm Bureau member and supporter, Patrick Emery, was honored for his leadership and community service.
Pat took the stage with great pride and enthusiasm to accept the honor and share his story. I listened to Pat’s speech with great admiration when it dawned on me. Patrick Emery purchased my first market lamb at the Sonoma County Fair in 1987. I had not shown anything other than dairy cattle so this was a new project and experience for me. I was used to taking my animals to the fair, showing them, and then bringing them home. Showing a market animal meant that I would be leaving that animal behind to be sent for processing. When the time came, I thought I was ready without hesitation, but it became a little harder to do at auction time as the reality of not only the separation but the lamb’s future set in. So, while I cried as I said goodbye, I knew going into the fair that this part was inevitable.
It was a very successful experience as my lamb was the FFA Grand Champion. It just so happened that in 1987, the Sonoma County Fair decided to display the carcasses of the 4-H and FFA Grand Champion market animals in a window-encased cold box during the week of the fair following the auctions. This was an opportunity to educate fairgoers/consumers about meat and carcass composition. I remember standing at the cold box, looking in at my lamb’s carcass and a person next to me said “I wonder how the owner would feel if they saw this hanging here” to which I said, “Proud” and then shared that I was the person who raised that animal. At that age, I didn’t realize how important that moment really was. It is moments like this that are so valuable yet are becoming fewer and farther between as now we must contend with defending programs like this at all.
There was a “Close to Home” article in the Press Democrat on April 26th titled “Breaking young hearts at the fair.” The author, noted as being an advocate for animals and the environment, wrote this article to pull on the heartstrings of readers as she shared her emotional experience as she followed the story of “Rosie the (market) Pig” who was being raised by an FFA member to show and sell at the Sonoma County Fair over ten years ago. The article was centered around how she went to the auction to buy the pig to save it from slaughter. She mentioned how she told the FFA member they were there to “rescue her pig,” to which the FFA member “yelled, ‘Yes! Please save her!’” while another exhibitor “cried out, ‘Please save my pig, too.’” She went on to explain how she won Rosie with the highest bid in a “rousing bidding war” and “celebrated with the young woman who had raised and loved her (Rosie.)” Her story continued to paint a somber picture for anyone unfamiliar with the fair’s market program, focusing on the fair simply wanting to know how she wanted the pig packaged when they didn’t allow her to take it home. In all likeliness, her story was sure to tug at the heartstrings of many uneducated (on the subject) and disconnected readers.
In true fashion, her story did not discuss how raising this animal provided the FFA member with wonderful opportunities. It taught her how to care for livestock animals being grown for food, equating to learning about animal nutrition, veterinary practices, food safety, animal husbandry and comfort, business transactions, ledgers, economics, teamwork, networking, and more. All of this is to say that it is not uncommon for animal producers to become attached in some way, but it is clear from the outset that raising livestock does not equate to raising a pet. These animals are raised respectfully with the intent to feed people.
This FFA member also learned responsibility, accountability, and following rules, and this is another very poignant rebuttal to the author’s plea for pity. Youth market shows at the fairs are terminal, meaning once the market animal is checked in, the only way it leaves is on a truck with the rest for processing. This is a rule that is known upon agreement of participation. Should an FFA or 4-H member, or any youth market exhibitor become too attached to their animal, they may exercise their right not to bring their animal to the fair to participate in the market show, resulting in keeping the animal. No one is forcing exhibitors to take their animals to the fair.
This young FFA member also learned the generosity of our community, as the buyer who replaced the author honored the sale price of $1,400, approximately $5.19 per pound, well above the market price! Our community is an amazing powerhouse of support for our youth who typically utilize the profits from the sale of their animals to buy their first vehicle or to help with college expenses. In fact, there are many young people in our community that have found the market animal program through FFA who would not have had the opportunity otherwise. Through the process, they learned the intangible values of the program while reaping the community’s generosity to fund their education or provide for their families in ways they may not have been able to before.
The kindness and support of our community continue to offer our youth a hand-up, not a handout. I applaud you, Patrick Emery, and the hundreds of other community members who rally around our youth to help educate them about agriculture through their hands-on experiences and projects, rewarding them for their hard work by going above and beyond at sale time, and encouraging them to find a future in agriculture, but regardless of the path they take, for supporting them to reach for success in all that they do.