Friendships forged through agriculture

For those concerned over the average age of a farmer, or worried about what the youth of America are doing with their time, you need only make your way to the Jim Graham building the first Saturday of the North Carolina State Fair.

Eamon Queeney—The North State Journal
Phil Bagwell

Friday night lightsCows, kids, and country music bumping behind impromptu line dancing in the stalls at the Jim Graham building are the order of business on Friday night. These youth livestock exhibitors are here to compete in their Super Bowl of market shows and sales.”These kids have worked hard to get here,” said Shannon Vanhoy, Catawba County FFA Advisor at Bandy’s High School. “We have 26 members and some are suburban kids from non-traditional agriculture households, if there’s ever a learning curve you can be sure they make it up in hard work.”Some of these youth exhibitors are involved in 4-H, some are members of the Future Farmers of America organization, and some represent their family farms — they have all reached this stage with their animals because they won at the local level and understand the concept of dedication and hard work.On Saturday Bandy’s FFA group won the inaugural Junior Herdsman Award. The award recognizes participants for responsible behavior and quality work while taking care of their animals at the fair. Even with the boot scoot boogie going on in the background while I talk with the young people in this group, it is easy to see why they were recognized for this award. No one in the Bandy’s FFA group ever mentions the accolade.The exhibitors are looking forward to their own shows and many have added a component to their weekend by volunteering to participate in the livestock special show.The special show is a livestock event where youth exhibitors are paired with people with special needs of all ages and abilities with the goal of sharing the joyful experience of being with an animal in the show ring at the state fair.Sarah Faith McAllister lights up when asked about her participation. “I found out today that I’m paired with Phil,” beamed Sarah. “Last year my sister was partnered with Phil and he is just the nicest man, he makes everyone around him feel important. When I got the card with Phil’s name I was so happy.” McAllister will accompany Phil Bagwell around the show ring with her immaculately groomed black angus cow on Saturday. McAllister’s excitement is contagious and her friends pile in to share how much everyone loves Phil along with their own excitement about being a part of the event.Quietly seated adjacent to the Bandy’s FFA group are a crop of siblings, one pair from Stanly County and one from Guilford County. They are soft spoken, but no less enthusiastic about their volunteer involvement. Mattie and Marcie Harward are twins from Stanly County and both are eager to participate. “I volunteer because it’s fun to have the opportunity to share agriculture with someone who might not have the chance to be exposed to it,” said Mattie Harward. “Absolutely, it’s a great part of the fair experience for us,” echoes Marcie Harward.Cara Smith and her brother Thomas Smith are from Guilford County and they reflect that same sentimentIn fact, Thomas Smith has been paired with the same partner for five years, “I enjoy volunteering, it gives kids a way to be around livestock.” said Thomas Smith. “Some of the participants have never been around animals. My partner was afraid of them to begin with, but not anymore.”The entire time I sat with these four not one of them mentions the multiple wins and scholarships they have accumulated on this trip to Raleigh — only their excitement about helping others.Because of MikeIt all started in 1997 with one man.Mike Smith asked his family and friends, “Why don’t I get to show?”One man with Down’s Syndrome from Rockingham County who had watched his friends and family show livestock and win ribbons and belts for years with a deep desire to participate — finally asked. Smith’s family and friends set about making it happen, first at the local level, then all the way up to the N.C. State Fair where Smith continues to take part in the livestock special show every year.”He’s been everywhere,” said Mike Smith’s sister. “He’s shown at the Dixie Classic Fair, at the Mountain State Fair, he even used to go all the way to South Carolina to show.” Gloria Smith beams with pride over her brother. “He loves it and this year he gets to show with his great-niece.”Smith’s family talks about how he started out wanting to show because of the draw of a belt buckle, much like the one he proudly wears in the ring today. A few years back the livestock youth got together and gave Smith that buckle as a gift to thank him for all he’s done.Each of the young exhibitors mention Mike Smith in conversation at some point, reflecting an entire generation inspired to volunteer in agriculture.The special show began with one man in 1997 and now the ring is so full they have to cap the number of participants due to time constraints.Carol Turner is the event organizer and she was with the N.C. State Fair livestock office for 26 years until she retired, but this event is in her heart. Turner comes back every year specifically for the special show, “I just can’t give it up,” said Turner.She talks about the organized chaos and the friendships families forge through the many activities associated with being a show participant. Each of the people involved seem to have signed on as permanent special show family members — all connected by agriculture.Saturday night saleIt is time for the youth who volunteered their time on Saturday afternoon to get dressed up for Saturday night and the Junior Sale of Champions. The junior sale at the N.C. State Fair has always existed, but in 2014 it was moved to 6:00 p.m. and placed in the middle of the show ring. When the sale moved they added the scholarship element to the program. The youth keep 60 percent of the purchase amount of the livestock sold and the other 40 percent goes to support scholarships and animal agriculture programs in North Carolina.Bryan Blinson, Executive Director of the N.C. Cattlemen’s Association served as the emcee for the evening and he explained the effort exerted by these young exhibitors to get here, “This is the culmination of an immense amount of work. If you think these young people went out in the pasture and caught a cow last week and gave it a bath and brought it to Raleigh — nothing could be farther from the truth.”The evening begins with the singing of the National Anthem by scholarship recipient, Mason Blinson, followed by a prayer for our neighbors in Eastern N.C. as they recover from the damage wrought by hurricane Matthew.Veteran auctioneer E.B. Harris is on hand to call the auction and entertain — if you are bidding you better not be caught sitting on your hands. “You can never tell the depth of the water in the well by the length of the handle on the pump,” Harris calls out to one bidder he feels should up the ante.As the evening proceeds former scholarship winners stand to be recognized for their current course of study and as an anecdote they reminisce about their favorite fair moments. Of note, more than one recipient shared that being a part of the special show gave them life lessons they still cherish.Friendships forged through agriculture, hard work, and giving back.