Inside the beef and dairy barn at the Spokane County Interstate Fair, the emotion is building.
In the auction pen on Sunday afternoon, 10-year-old Kelly Cordill, of Cheney, will say goodbye to Olaf, the steer she’s raised since birth.
There will be tears.
However, there were none on Friday morning, even as Cordill stroked Olaf’s backside and told city-bred fairgoers that “he’s sweet and kind and does what I want him to do.”
Then Cordill talked about last year’s fair, when she parted with Herman the Hereford – an animal “so gentle I could ride him,” Cordill said.
By that point, the visitors’ heartstrings had been well and truly plucked, but Cordill wasn’t finished.
“Yes, it’s going to be sad, because this is only my second year, and I get attached to my calves a lot,” Cordill said.
Two feet away, half a ton of heifer suddenly stood up in the pen, startling visitors but hardly fazing Cordill.
“It’s all right,” she said without a pause. “This is Kylie.”
A 3-year-old Charolais heifer, Kylie must be the reason her owner isn’t bawling herself to sleep.
“She was bred to be a cow, and we’ll keep breeding her,” Cordill said brightly.
She has other animals, with names like Bubbles, Sprinkles and Baby Ghost. Also at the fair – but not for sale – is Cool Blue, a 4-month-old bull.
That’s right: Cordill, a fifth-grader, is in the cattle business.
“I started my own herd,” said Cordill, who gives her parents much of the credit for that. However, she’s done much of the heavy lifting – no mean feat, considering Olaf weighs 1,410 pounds.
For Cordill and the other youngsters from the 4-H-affiliated Frog Hollow Livestock club, that means rising at 5 or 6 a.m. to feed the animals.
More chores await after the school day.
But it’s worth it, says Tanner Gerdes, a senior at Cheney High School.
“We get to compete and show off our skills and our cattle that we have here,” said Gerdes, whose younger sister Tylie also is showing at the fair.
However, that enthusiasm is flagging in Spokane, where beef auction prices are lower than at other regional fairs. That’s a sore point for some farm families.
On Friday morning, the Benton-Franklin Fair & Rodeo in the Tri-Cities, which ended last weekend, announced total market stock auction sales of just over $1 million.
Three weeks ago, the North Idaho State Fair had sales over $500,000.
Spokane, a much larger market, will see about $250,000 for the same number of animals, estimates local rancher Michael Brown.
Brown’s wife, Jennie, recalls paying for most of her college education by raising livestock.
After deducting expenses, “Most of these kids will take a loss,” Jennie Brown said. “I think there’s lot of potential but at some point these kids are going to have to make a choice.”
The reasons are complex, but business support for youth livestock sales has waned in recent years .
“I don’t know if the word hasn’t gotten out or if there’s been a culture change,” said Jennie Brown, who along with friend Heidi Monter was trying to spread the news via Facebook.
“It basically comes down to the fact that they are more willing to support youth (in the Tri-Cities) than here, which is sad,” Monter said. “There’s so much learning happening – business, marketing, so much more than just feeding the animal.”
Those activities often translate into a bright future, no matter what field the youngsters pursue.
Recently, Tufts University completed a 10-year study of the effectiveness of various youth programs.
After evaluating more than 7,000 adolescents from diverse backgrounds across 42 states, the study revealed that 4-H youth are four times more likely to give back to their communities, two times more likely to participate in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) activities and two times more likely to be civically active.
“We need to get the community involved in supporting these kiddos,” Brown said.
Elsewhere in the building, the kids were hard at work. There wasn’t a cellphone in sight.
Seven-year-old Ava McKay, of Sprague, was tending to Maggie, a 7-week-old calf, who will be bottle-fed for several more months.
“I feed her and take care of her,” McKay said as she hugged the animal.
Across the way, Cordill was tending to Olaf.
There’s more work to be done, including grooming Olaf for Sunday’s auction.
“He’s just so sweet,” Cordill said.
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