In July, we experienced the passing of a friend who was in our lives less than a year, but whose lessons and impact will last a lifetime. My 10-year-old daughter showed her first animal at the California Mid-State Fair. Fuzz was a 1,179-pound Maine/Angus cross steer, raised by a 62-pound California cowgirl with a little help from her family and friends.
Emilia knew from the day she met Fuzz that he was going to die. She knew when he was going to die, how he was going to die and what the purpose of his death would be, and yet she chose to love him anyway. It’s a choice not easily understood by those outside of agriculture. But it’s a choice ranchers make every day; to raise animals humanely and treat them with respect. To put forth the best conditions possible for these animals to fulfill their life’s purpose — providing food for humans.
In late September of last year, we loaded up with my nephews and headed to Charmaine Velarde’s ranch in Nipomo to pick out steers for the Mid-State Fair. Charmaine had been alerted by my sister that it would be Emilia’s first year showing, so the rancher picked a calf based more on his temperament than his potential “ribeye score.” Don’t get me wrong, he was a nice steer and ended up a Group One, fourth place in his class. There was an immediate connection between Emilia and Fuzz. A month later, we brought him home, and they began their journey together.
Fuzz came into our family like a lamb and went out pretty much the same way, but I promise you, he had some lion-like moments along the way. We had days when it took an hour or more to catch him. In January he was giving Emilia some trouble, so dad stepped in to show her how it was done. I took a black eye with me on my trip to New York that week. He was a challenge all the way to the end. Two weeks before the fair, he stepped on her foot and got away from her during a showmanship practice. There were tears, probably more from frustration than pain.
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The decision to let Emilia show a steer didn’t come easily. I was against it at first, but Emilia was relentless in her requests and my wife was confident she could do it. I knew she had the moxie to handle the job, but I was concerned that the actual physical demands of training an animal that large would be a lot to handle for a kid her size. It required a team effort from Emilia, my wife, Kate, Emilia’s grandpa, her cousins, her fellow 4-H’ers and her leader, but when the fair came, they were ready. They collected lots of ribbons, and Emilia did very well for a first-time showman.
There is a lot to say about the lessons kids learn when they show animals. There is the responsibility and work ethic that comes with feeding animals twice a day; washing them; keeping their water clean; making sure they are healthy; and breaking them to be shown. Then there are the financial lessons of buying an animal, paying for the care and feeding and selling the animal, all the while keeping accurate records to determine profitability. However, the emotional lessons are equally as important.
When you talk to 4-H and FFA kids about their experience showing animals you will get lots of responses. We asked Emilia about some of her takeaways. She learned about the science: feed conversion and daily gain. She told us she learned that it’s important to know where your food comes from and that if you spend a little more at the grocery store it probably means the ranchers used the best feed and took excellent care of their animals.
The fifth day after the fair was the first day Emilia didn’t shed a tear for her friend Fuzz. That was a difficult week for her. The Sunday she had to say goodbye was particularly challenging, with prolonged periods of sobbing mixed in with walking Fuzz around the livestock area and introducing him to random fairgoers. I was on an airplane, but my wife Kate described watching Emilia that day as one of the most heartbreaking experiences of her life.
Most people would look at barns full of crying kids on the Sunday after the Junior Livestock Auction as large-scale child abuse. Would you shelter your kids from ever having to feel those real emotions? Or would you teach them that it is OK to love something even though you have to let it go? I prefer to allow my children to experience those emotions. Life is going to get much harder and I would rather they had real experience to draw from.
Most importantly, 4-H and FFA kids participate in raising food and respecting the process. One hundred and fifty years ago, raising food and fiber was the most fundamental part of the human experience. Today, less than 2 percent of the U.S. population is directly involved in farming and ranching. Most of these 4-H and FFA kids will not grow up to live inside that 2 percent. They will be teachers, technology professionals, doctors, contractors, etc., but they will carry with them the experience and lessons of raising animals.
Food doesn’t come from the grocery store. It comes from real sacrifice. Maybe it’s a farmer managing scarce resources and toiling in the soil, waiting for rain to make a crop, or a rancher playing doctor and nursemaid to a calf crop, investing tremendous capital and sleepless nights, then letting go when it comes time for them to go to market. Feeding the world takes blood, sweat and, yes, tears.