Fair days for tough lessons: 4-H, FFA students ride emotional roller coaster


For many young people, a trip to a county fair offers a fun escape from reality.

For others — such as 18-year-old Kalyn Renninger — the experience can come with a roller coaster ride of emotional highs and lows.

Renninger has raised steers via 4-H since she was eight years old and shows them at the local fair. However, like pigs and other livestock raised for meat, her steers go up for auction at the end of each fair, and she has to say goodbye.

“It is like saying goodbye to your best friend. There is nothing comparable with the relationship that is developed — the endless hours working toward making that animal the best it can be for the show,” she said. “When the auction is over and you take the animal to the trailer, it can be so hard and so emotional to turn around and walk away.”

Greta Hollenbach, of Beaver Springs, has watched her nine-year-old daughter, Rebekah, go through a similar struggle with her dairy beef cattle.

“She starts out with them as babies, giving them milk every morning and putting blankets on them to keep them warm,” Greta said. “As they get older, she teaches them to walk with a halter and gets them responsive to the show stick. There is bathing and grooming and other things necessary to get the animals ready for show.”

However, as hard as it may be to sell off these animals — usually to slaughter — Rebekah said it helps to keep things in perspective.

“I like to raise animals to help feed people and use the money to buy what I want — like a horse,” she said. “Selling dairy beef still is hard, though, but it helps that I have other calves at home to play with afterward.”


Thrill of the auction

The fair auction is an event in itself.

“I actually get excited for the auction,” said 17-year-old Sean Haines, of Mazeppa, who raises lambs and pigs. “I like all the buyers and the lights and the rush as the auctioneer raises the bids. Afterward, the realization sets in, but that is just how it is.”

Charles Kessler, who helps oversee the livestock auction at the Union County West End Fair, agreed that the sale can be exciting.

“There are a lot of things that go into the sale, and the atmosphere can be hard to describe. This year, we had 79 buyers, sold 144 units and raised more than $110,500,” he said. “It can still be a tear-jerker for the students as they sell their animals. It makes an interesting dynamic for them.”

Once expenses are covered, the money raised goes back to the 4-H and FFA members who sold their animals, according to Kessler, which can help them see the bigger picture of the business.

“Much of the time, I’ve seen kids use the money they’ve raised toward college scholarships — in fact, I’ve known a few who have completely financed their college careers through the raising and sale of their livestock,” he said. “Others invest the money in projects for the next fair season. Some students in the past have used their money toward school clothing and supplies to take some of the burden off their parents.”


Lessons learned

There are a number of life lessons learned during this process, according to auctioneer Adam Fraley, who was a part of the recent Union County West End livestock sale.

“It can be weird for some people to understand,” Fraley said. “When I see the kids crying as we are loading up the animals, it is sad but also makes me feel good because it is apparent how much they care for their animals and the process is building character for later in life. Life can be hard at points. There is nothing better than 4-H when it comes to raising kids and teaching them important lessons.”

One such lesson involves finances.

“As a parent, I appreciate how this experience really helps teach children and young adults how to manage money,” she said. “They have to understand how to predict expenses and learn tactics to make a profit so they can invest in a project for the following year.”

It also teaches responsibility.

“To do well in the show and at the auction, you need to work with your animal every day. You have to feed it right, walk it regularly and bond with it so it isn’t scared of you. You have to put the time and work into something to be successful,” said Haines. “Then when it is show day, I’m still slightly nervous, but can feel mainly confident in how things will turn out.”

That sense of responsibility is key, said Greta.

“It doesn’t matter what animal you have — it is a responsibility. You learn a sense of value when you have something that is precious and you want it to do well,” she said. “The selling part is definitely a humbling experience. You spend all that time building a relationship with the animal, and then you are sacrificing that in order to help feed others. There is so much to be learned within that alone.”

As for Renninger, as tough as the goodbye can be at the end of a fair, she wouldn’t trade her upbringing one bit.

“I am honored and privileged to grow up with a farming background,” she said. “I wish everyone had at least one day on a farm during their lives to get a better idea of what it takes. Our farmers don’t get enough credit for what they do and what all they sacrifice to make a difference.”