The Tanana Valley State Fair attracts thousands of young people clamoring for thrilling rides and sweet treats but there is also a contingent of around 100 youths who spend nearly the entire time at the fair caring for cows, pigs, reindeer, sheep, goats, rabbits and poultry.
Members of 4-H and FFA clubs begin their work with livestock months prior to the fair, shepherding and training the animals on a daily basis. 4-H volunteer and mother of now grown 4-H’ers Nancy Graff said, “It’s fun-filled learning. They learn a lot of responsibility along with public speaking. Even if they don’t raise animals the rest of their lives, they learn business skills.”
Marla Lowder, Tanana District 4-H and youth development agent for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service, said young people learn responsibility when they take care of living, breathing things. “It’s not a two-day or an 11-day commitment,” she said.
Raising cattle takes up to 10 months and smaller animals two to three months. “It also teaches caring and compassion,” she said.
Lowder sees the livestock presenters working together and helping each other. “It’s neat to watch the kids rally around and help each other.”
This year’s fair presented the unique opportunity to watch a sow give birth to piglets. “This was an outstanding experience,” Lowder said. “The kids are learning by doing, which is the 4-H motto.” The public also got to go along for the ride, with some getting to watch the birthing process and many more observing the piglets as they nursed.
Lilli Rice, 14, planned for her sow to give birth at the fair. She has been participating in livestock shows since she was 8. She gets a kick out of people acting shocked that ham comes from pigs. “It’s amazing to me that they don’t know where meat comes from,” Lilli said.
For this year’s fair Lilli brought eight pigs and a goat. She loves the auction when animals are sold to the highest bidders. “I like giving the buyers a good quality animal,” she said. Before the fair she does her best to ensure that all her animals enjoy a good life. Right after the auction when the animals are loaded onto trailers and headed to slaughterhouses is not an easy time, Lilli said. “Everyone has trouble then. I cry every time.”
But then she starts planning for next year’s fair. “It’s what we want to do,” she said. “At times it can get frustrating but we enjoy it. I tell myself I can do this; I’m a farm girl and I feel the power.”
Lilli’s sister Kaitlynne Rice, 11, said raising animals is a great learning experience. “I enjoy being with the animals and training them and I get to meet a lot of great people.”
The Rice girls’ mother Priscilla Rice grew up raising animals in Delta Junction and wanted her children to have that experience too. “It’s not just livestock, it’s leadership, life skills, economics, nutrition,” she said. “It’s a lot more than just getting the animals fed.”
She is proud that Lilli has become quite a business person. As a teenager, she already plans breeding, handles artificial insemination, introduces new stock to Alaska and works with a meat-packing plant to get the animals processed. “She has to map this out. She has learned the hardships of farming.”
Lowder said raising animals has become a business for Lilli. “It’s an entrepreneurship project,” she said.
Adryahn Bodyfelt, 11, showed a reindeer and a lamb. “The reindeer was fun; it was definitely different,” she said. She has been raising and showing lambs since she was 3. “I like to be around animals,” she said.
Nathan Bowder, 18, finds the fair to be a great experience. “I love showing the animals,” he said. He’s been so taken with his 4-H experiences that he is considering becoming a veterinarian. This fall he will begin studying biochemistry at the University of Tampa. “4-H has definitely been influential,” he said. “I got to see how hands-on it was. I gave shots, castrated, de-horned; I grew to love it. I love everything leading up the fair. It’s a lot of fun.”
Although there is a lot of hard work and sweat that goes into the fair for nine long days, Lowder fairly beamed as she watched the 4-Hers go about their chores. “I’m proud of these kids. They do a good job,” she said. “I appreciate their representation of the 4-H program. They are outstanding youths, each in their own way.”
This column is provided as a service by the UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences and the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station. Nancy Tarnai is the school and station’s public information officer.