The Thurston County Fair has always been a showcase for area youth, where they learn how to raise and show animals or gain experience in cooking, photography, sewing and other hobbies.
Most of the youth projects take year-round planning and care, especially those involving animals.
Kataira Smith, 17, hoisted her lamb, Slim Jim, onto a metal shearing platform.
The lamb fought back, taking each foot off shortly after Kataira placed it on.
The Yelm High School student’s Future Farmers of America instructor, Elaine Lewis, was nearby to offer up her almost 20 years of experience.
“You get the head, and I’ll get the butt,” Lewis said matter-of-factly. “Slim knows what is going to happen; that’s why he doesn’t wanna do this.”
Their combined efforts got Slim Jim onto the platform. His head secured, Kataira began shearing the lamb’s wool coat that had grown to be a few inches thick.
She was preparing for her first showing at the Puyallup Fair. The key is to have his wool short and smooth to win the judge’s approval.
Kataira was inspired to join FFA as a freshman. She first wanted to learn how to show cows, but her father insisted she choose a different species.
After some convincing, he agreed to sheep. One day she hopes to have a flock.
“The best part of showing is the people you meet,” Kataira said. “You talk to a lot of people and meet a lot of folks.”
Raising her sheep for market, Kataira spends her summer talking with potential buyers and business leaders, hoping to bring in a good price for her efforts.
“You could have a potential job in your future there, and it helps to make contacts,” Kataira said.
Lewis brings about 45 students to the Thurston County Fair each year to show their animals, and 50 hobbyists. Of those students who showed animals, seven went on to the Puyallup Fair to show at state, based on their experience and merit.
Participants in 4-H have to qualify at a county fair before they can move on to state.
There is no meat market at the Puyallup Fair, Lewis said, meaning if the Thurston County Fair were to shut down, the FFA’s market students wouldn’t have anywhere to show.
Lewis keeps in touch with her students through the summer as they continue to raise their animals at home, on the farm or on school grounds, where 20 or so livestock animals are kept.
“They don’t go astray in the summer when they have responsibilities and goals,” Lewis said. “It keeps them on the straight and narrow.”
Lauren Saelid, a Black Hills High School senior and 4-H member for the past six years, is continuing a tradition began by her mother, Gena.
She was inspired to start after meeting her future 4-H leader, who was boarding Saelid’s horse.
The experience taught Saelid more than just how to properly show and compete.
“I learned a lot about the good of community service,” Saelid said. “They really work on getting in your head about the community stuff – in just my club alone, they do a lot of community service; we have a blast and it feels good.”
Carrying on the tradition of fair isn’t easy for children living in urban areas. Some interested in raising livestock but live in an urban setting resort to raising their animals on someone else’s farm.
“A lot of city kids are looking for outside resources,” Skillingstad said. “As people retire and move on, those resources are dwindling.”
Animal entries at the fair have been moving away from the traditional dairy cows, pigs and sheep to animals children can manage in an urban setting, including dogs, cats and rabbits. Others turn to hobbyist entries, such as cooking, photography and sewing.
The number of FFA and 4-H participants has been steadily declining over the years. In 2000, there were 650 4-H and 275 FFA participants at the fair. In 2005 there were 510 4-H and 169 FFA, and in 2012 there were 424 4-H and 108 FFA participants.
Of those who participate, more entries are for one or two animals versus multiple entries, said Fair Manager Rick Storvick.
“They might bring in 20 rabbits to show because they were breeding them, but more and more we are moving to a setting where most kids bring them as their pet rabbit,” Storvick said.