When we hear it's fair time in Cumberland County, many of us (myself included) probably start hearing that carnival music in our heads. Our mouths start watering for that deliciously bad for you fair food, like funnel cake, fried cookie dough and donut burgers (seriously!). We think about all the young ladies vying for sashes and crowns in the annual pageants, check the schedule for who will be performing, and start checking on our handicrafts from the past year to see what we can enter in the exhibits.

The youth who exhibited their animals Sunday evening had a few more things on their minds than when the midway will open (it opened Monday night, by the way). They were busy grooming their heifers and calves, sheep, goats and gilts, and preparing to show off their animal-handling skills to the judge in the ring.

The youth livestock show is an important part of the history of the traditional county fair, and it's also an important part of the future of our dinner tables with tomorrow's agricultural producers standing before us looking for guidance and encouragement. From the pee-wee skills competitions to juniors and seniors in high school vying for titles in the different classes, I saw the culmination of the past year's work and, for many of these young people, years and years of hard work, determination, sweat and good ol' grit.

I was impressed with how even the younger kids could handle an animal that I would be a bit leery of leading around. One youngster was, maybe, three years old, yet she got out there with a heifer. Boys and girls of all ages took to the ring for the various classes in the heifer show. Their animals had been brushed and groomed for the ring and they had their tools and training with them to show the best side of those animals. 

The youngsters led their animals around the ring — or, in the case of the hogs, tried to gently nudge them where to go — brushed sawdust off their animals and answered questions the judges had for them. It wasn't just about having the best bred animal. It was knowing how to present it the best and to show that you were actively involved in raising it, caring for it and preparing it for show.

You can't walk in to the ring on show day and fake that kind of preparation. Innate talent won't cut it. You have to put in the hours and do the work.

I also saw teamwork, camaraderie and willingness to help a friend out. In some classes, people had more than one animal to show. It's hard enough leading one large animal around by a halter, much less two. Though they had just been in the ring together as competitors, these youngsters stepped up to help show those other animals and lend a hand to their fellow producer.

Years ago, I tried my hand at raising a market lamb. It was not easy. The thing about these animal projects, often coordinated through the 4-H and Future Farmers of America organizations, is that they don't stop when the weather gets cold or when you're tired or when you'd rather be off doing something else. Animals have to be fed, sheltered and worked with. And animals have a mind of their own. You can beg and plead and try to drag them along, but if that animal doesn't want to go, it's kind of hard to change its mind. 

At the heart of every county fair in the country is the desire to bring the community together, to share what we've been working on and to learn from each other. The county fair originally began as a way to showcase the latest advancements in agricultural technology to farmers. It was also a chance for farmers to show off their goods to a variety of potential buyers. And who doesn't like winning a contest? The Cumberland County Fair continues that tradition, and the youth livestock competitions ensure another round of young leaders will one day step forward to keep this tradition going.

And even those who didn't leave the ring with a pretty purple ribbon for Best of Show, you are all still winners in my book. 

Youth livestock shows are planned for Friday and Saturday at the fair, with the annual market show and sell set for Saturday night beginning at 6 p.m. This is the chance for these young people to sell their market animals and recoup the money spent raising them. It's part of the livestock project, and it's a great way to stock your freezer for the winter with locally raised beef, pork, lamb and mutton. Come out and support these youngsters, and bid high. If you're at the fair this week, stop by the livestock barn and see the exciting activities going on there.

• • •

Heather Mullinix is assistant editor of the Crossville Chronicle. Her column is published on Tuesdays. She may be reached at hmullinix@crossville-chronicle.com.

Heather Mullinix is assistant editor of the Crossville Chronicle. She covers schools and education in Cumberland County. She may be reached at hmullinix@crossville-chronicle.com.