The Southeastern Youth Fair runs February 20 through February 27, and as the largest all-youth fair event in the state of Florida, it’s one to put on the calendar.
Executive Director Denise Deen is one of only two employees who make the fair possible each year, and 2016 will be her sixth year. She says the fair is undoubtedly a community event—volunteers from the area are the only reason it’s possible. Local organizations sponsor each show and provide knowledgeable personnel to set up, run and tear down the various exhibitions.
“We have wonderful volunteers that handle each show, and they have expertise in each show. For example, the steer show is run by Marion County Cattlemen,” Denise explains. “Each show has its own coordinator. That person usually gets a committee of more volunteers. No one person could run a show—it takes a village. We set up all the logistics, and they do all the work with the animals, like weigh-ins and setting up pens. They work so hard purely because they enjoy what they’re doing and helping the kids.”
With approximately 1,000 exhibitors this year, all members of Marion County 4-H clubs and FFA chapters, there’s no shortage of sights to see. They’ll be competing in 27 different events in four categories: market animals, animals, home arts and other. Market animals are the staple, and these projects start months in advance at animal weigh-in days.
Steers, goats, lambs and hogs will all be trailered to the fairgrounds to be shown and sold. The swine show is slated to be the largest with 291 hogs weighed in (though not all will make it to show day), which is 90 more than last year.
Lori Albritton has been teaching agriculture for 21 years and recently moved to North Marion High School where she leads 50 students in the school’s FFA chapter. She sees how hard her students work each day to prepare their project animals for the fair.
“It goes all the way back to the beginning from feeding and nutrition to exercising. The kids have to keep record books on everything, like feed expenses and building a pen. They’re selling them for meat, so daily exercise builds their muscles,” she explains. She says the students also practice setting up their animals, which means training them to stand properly in the ring to look their best for buyers.
“Right before the fair, around January, students write buyer letters and visit people to invite them to the fair and are basically marketing their animals,” says Lori.
One of her FFA members, senior Derek Sharp, has shown at every Southeastern Youth Fair since 2011. This year he’s showing one steer, multiple beef heifers and a market lamb, so he’s no stranger to show preparations.
“We get our steer at the beginning of the project anywhere from late spring to end of summer before September when our initial weigh-in is,” says Derek. “From that point, we work on halter breaking. That involves getting the animal’s trust so it’s used to being around you. Usually these calves come off the ranch, and they’re not used to being touched. You work with them every day, training them to set up and set their legs correctly for how you want them to look in the show.” Hair care is important, too, especially for the lambs, of course. But one thing is pivotal for every project animal: food.
“Nutrition is a whole different ball game,” says Derek. “There’s so much involved. If it’s too hot, they won’t want to eat, or if it’s too cold, they may feel hungrier. We always choose a high-quality feed because we believe what you put in is what you’ll get out. If you invest your money, you’ll get a high-quality finished product at the end of the project.”
Record books are a part of livestock projects most fair visitors won’t see, but competitors spend hours making sure their records are thorough and will hold up under the judges’ scrutiny. Inside are inventories for tracking costs per unit of feed and purchase dates, materials for building pens and other expenses like bedding and brushes. There is also an animal health record for dates it received deworming medication.
Market animal projects are quite an undertaking, but that doesn’t keep younger students from getting involved. Lindy Batten runs the 4-H program at Shady Hill Elementary School. She started the after-school club five years ago with one club pig and a vision of spearheading an ag program at the elementary level. This year, 35 members are raising 13 animals on campus to show at the Southeastern Youth Fair.
“Students share responsibilities for the care and the maintenance of these market animals. They give oral demonstrations, complete record books and take superior care of the animals so they make weight. This could open many doors for them in the future. That’s my passion, to be a teacher who provides these opportunities in agriculture to students for them to learn by doing,” she explains.
Last year Shady Hill 4-H showed four market animals. Their pig and lamb were crowned grand champions, their steer was reserve class champion and their goat won class champion. Emery Robbins, this year’s club president, says she and her fellow members have all become passionate about livestock and agriculture.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to even touch one of these animals, and I’m very grateful for Ms. Batten,” she says. Students take turns showing the animals, but all relish the one-on-one time caring for them and preparing them for their 15 minutes of fame.
While livestock shows are the cornerstone of the fair, there are numerous other exhibitions, too. One of the newer competitions is the Dave Bailey BBQ Contest, sponsored by the Lions Club, which began in 1990.
“We have four categories: chicken, pork, beef and other. There’s a first place in each category, and they get a cash prize, and it’s really fun,” Denise says. Participants don’t just show up and flip burgers. They have to bring their own grill and equipment, create their own menu and attend a food safety course in advance to be eligible.
“We have tractor driving, which is sponsored by the Florida Farm Bureau. That’s Monday morning before the barbecue contest. That’s a really fun one. They earn belt buckles and other things, and there are winners in junior, senior and intermediate.” Other events include a speech contest, conservation landscape tray displays, sewing and needlework, and a photography contest that has grown each year.
Aside from the young 4-H’ers and Future Farmers of America showing off their projects, there will be a Country Carnival with rides and attractions to keep the roughly 24,000 expected visitors busy between show times. Other animal shows include horse events with riders in English and Western disciplines and dog shows all day Saturday with obedience in the morning and agility in the afternoon. No doubt the fair will be a must-see exhibition of Marion County youth’s hard work, passion and progress.
Derek believes involvement in FFA has made him and his siblings more responsible than some of their peers, especially when it comes to money.
“We’re out here every day cleaning pens, washing the animals, fixing fences, whatever has to get done.I might get invited to go hang out with friends, but if the animals haven’t been fed, that has to happen first. It teaches us a lot of responsibility,” he says. “Financial literacy is big. Every year, I get a loan to raise my animals, and at the end of the year, I pay it back. My little brother and sister, 14 and 10, take loans out, as well, so even at their age they’re learning how a bank works, interest on the loans, how to pay them back and we learn the value of a dollar. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever been involved in.”
Lori Albritton knows FFA is preparing her students to inherit the agricultural industry successfully.
“There are 22 million people who work in ag-related jobs every day. The industry is so diverse in what you can do.”
For Denise, her time overseeing the fair has always been about the county’s youth learning to love agriculture.
“The life lessons learned at the fair are invaluable and help produce some amazing young people. This is what I love about the fair: the sense of community and a love for the land and agriculture that has endured and been passed on for 76 years!”
Want To Go?
Southeastern Youth Fair
Saturday, February 20 through Saturday, February 27
2232 NE Jacksonville Road, Ocala
Event schedules available online at seyfair.com.