PASO ROBLES — While so many people are focused on the fried food, the rides and the big stars who come to the fair every year, the part of the fair that I have always found the most exhilarating lies many pavilions beyond the twinkly lights, the cotton candy and the rides. It’s “the barn” — the area where all of the kids from the local Future Farmers of America and 4-H clubs gather to show their wares — with the constant whir of the fans, the smell of hay in the air and the stacks of cages and rows of pens representing what is supposed to be the best of their breed. And to this city girl, where the idea of owning an animal any larger than a Great Dane was an impossibility, the steer division has always been the most impressive to me.
With pen after pen of steers, pigs, goats and lambs there is only one Grand Champion Steer and I was determined to meet the owner of last year’s winner to get a peek at what being a participant rather than a spectator was all about.
Around sunrise late last week I did just that. As I pulled up to his barn in Spanish Camp, twelve year old Leo Kemp was already busy feeding this year’s contender Hercemer. During the school year Kemp is busy with sports and other activities but during the summer it’s all about the fair.
“I just love the fair, I can’t get sick of it,” he said. “I stay there all day. I hate it when the fair ends. I think it’s such a fun experience. I love the heat, I love all of the animals, I love the smell and the atmosphere. I like sitting there next to the animals with my club and just playing cards all day.”
Kemp recalls last year’s win as a bit of a fairy tale.
“All I wanted to win was 4-H Champion All-Colored Steer,” he said. “Grand Champion never came to my mind, then I won 4-H steer, then I’m in there with all my steer idols and I was just so happy to be there, and then I won the whole thing!”
As for this year’s contender, Kemp works with him every day. He gets up at 6 a.m. every morning, washes him and walks him and one of the things that really flips Kemp’s lid is the double blower — an industrial sized blow dryer to speed up the grooming process — that he got for Christmas.
I went into this thinking it was all about the literal “end game” for the animal, the auction, the pride found in price per pound the child got for their prized animal when they sold the animal to some hungry stranger. I couldn’t have been further off.
While there are some regular players that set the prices every year like the Klassen Corporation out of Bakersfield that purchases most of the winners, market packs them and distributes the meat to several regional homeless shelters — “It’s long-time families that are supporting the sales,” California Mid-State Fair Livestock Superintendent Joann Switzer said. “There’s only one grand okay. There are 400 and some other pigs and cows and other animals that just aren’t.”
Switzer works year-round with all of the FFA and 4H programs in the county. When it comes to the competition, the auctions and the kid’s participation as a whole, Switzer set my perspective straight.
“One generation after the next generation supports the sales,” she said. “My parents did it, their parents I did it, and now my children are doing it. It’s long-time families that are supporting the sales,” said Switzer.
There is so much more to the big win, it’s the experience as a whole, “Even if they [the kids] never see an animal again when they get out of high school they have learned responsibility, they have learned how to reconcile checkbooks, how to get loans from the banks and how to work with other kids. There is so much they learn from it besides just raising the animals.”
And that led to my next big question I would have every year, when my only personal experience with a fair bound animal was vicariously through “Charlotte’s Web:” how could these kids be so tough and detached from these beautiful beasts? Apparently they’re not.
Recalled Switzer, “Oh, I never wanted to sell mine. Every year I cried and every year my dad said I couldn’t do another one, and every year it was a repeat of the year before.”
You may contact reporter Madeline Vail at [email protected]