“Make new friends, but keep the old
One is silver and the other gold.”
– Old camp song
Lilac Festival Parade canceled. Bloomsday postponed, with cancellation still a possibility. Among gatherings affected by the extended shutdown, one dedicated group of Eastern Washington competitors found a way to take their event online.
Not a virtual Bloomsday, but a virtual running of the bulls – and the steers, heifers, pigs, sheep and goats through the show ring at the Spokane County Fair and Expo Center.
It would have been the 85th Annual Junior Livestock Show of Spokane, according to Lynn Cotter, show manager.
“To cancel a show is a lot more work than to put it on,” said Cotter. “It’s not easy. And then to cancel and go to something else is even more work.”
Cotter wasn’t complaining. The adults behind the show are focused on how to support the kids. Board members held a flurry of March and April online meetings as the situation changed weekly.
First, they postponed, then had to cancel as the Expo Center was converted for use as a quarantine site. There were already over 900 entries, animals carefully tended at a major investment of youth time and money.
Ian Wagner, of Reardan, a board member and former competitor, found a website offering a solution.
“Kind of fun to be on the cutting edge, using technology and still finding a way for the kids to compete with their animals,” Wagner said. “Wasn’t the same, but it was the best alternative instead of just pulling the plug and walking away.”
Virtual Stock Shows, based in Arizona, is a startup born of the reaction to the pandemic. Jeff Maynard, CEO and founder, owns an online livestock auction company plus a software company, and he was running weekend training camps for 4-H and FFA members in animal care and showing. He had played around with the idea of virtual competitions, wireframing the software before shelving the idea a few years ago.
The demand wasn’t there. And then suddenly it was.
Spring livestock shows mean project animals are at their peak and ready for market, and youths needed something to look forward to.
“The challenge pushed everyone,” Maynard said.
He was able to spin up the software and launch a turnkey platform in a few weeks.
“We can take and run an entire livestock show virtually,” he said. “It’s been tremendously well-received.”
Although he started out to help 4-H and FFA youths this spring, his company is now working with fairs for later this summer. The platform works for “anything competitive where a video or a picture can be used to judge,” said Maynard.
About a third of the preregistered entries competed in the Virtual Spokane Livestock Show. Some may have sold their animals early to recoup their investment, as this year’s show did not include a livestock sale.
“Kids can post ‘Steer for sale’ and reach so many people on social media, the free marketing platform was instrumental,” said Wagner.
He saw experiencing the sales and marketing side of agriculture as a positive for kids.
But both Cotter and Wagner agreed they hope to return to the historic format next year. Cotter misses seeing the competitors grow from awkward 8-year-olds to confident high school seniors.
“It’s fun to just see kids be kids, hanging out in the barns,” Cotter said.
“Nothing replaces the smell of the fresh wood chips at the Junior Show,” Wagner said. And shooting a video in your yard just isn’t the same: “The networking piece is probably one of the most important, local contacts that last a lifetime.”
Jennie Wagner, FFA adviser for Medical Lake High School and Ian’s mother, says their story starts with Ian’s father Rodger competing and making great friends from other communities.
“Then our kids started showing with the children of those friends, and now we are entering the stage where our grandkids will show against those friends’ grandkids. There’s multi-generational participation,” she said.
Junior Show is a once-a-year community for a week, campers and trailers pulled into the fairgrounds with families from all over Eastern Washington. And not surprisingly, some of that networking blossoms into romance.
Like when Joel Zwainz, of Reardan, spotted Emily Kulm, of Lind, but didn’t have her phone number. In the days before social media, all he had was a phone book. Back home after show week, he called all the Kulms in Lind until a cousin connected the two.
“We became friends, started dating after high school, and the rest is history,” said Emily Kulm Zwainz.
They welcomed son Karl into the family last year, a future 2027 competitor.
The virtual show platform may stick around as a new tool for more opportunities throughout the year, but it can’t replace hanging out in the barn.