Sherrie Wynkoop has a simple wish: for her 9-year-old son, Josh, to earn second place.
He has worked countless hours, sweated through dozens of T-shirts and stained several pairs of jeans with manure and steer slobber to make it to the 64th annual Loudoun County Fair, which closes late this afternoon. If only his 1,215-pound steer, Kirby, keeps his cool in the 90-degree heat and cooperates while Josh, 85 pounds and 4 feet, 11 inches tall, leads him around the show ring.
Twenty minutes. A few circles around. Some soft pokes of a stick at his hooves. Rubs under the belly to keep him calm. Since November, Josh has practiced in their 10 acres in Purcellville.
But these are new surroundings--screaming toddlers in oversize strollers, moms flashing cameras, grandparents telling stories of farm days gone by--and Josh, a rising fifth-grader at Emerick Elementary School, is a little overwhelmed. To say nothing of Kirby, a Cross Continental steer with a black body and white face.
Last year, says Josh's mother, watching in the stands, other 4-H parents "got on me that I coddled him too much. He's been dying to get past third. I just keep telling him to give it time, it's only his second year showing."
Fourth- and fifth-place ribbons have taught Josh the lessons of 4-H clubs: Be competitive, but have fun. Treat your animals well, but don't get attached to them because some of them are going to the slaughterhouse. As he has learned to calculate the cost of feed and the price he'll get per pound of beef, those ribbons also have improved his grades.
Behind the stands, Bobby Mabe, Josh's stepfather, helps him put on Kirby's halter and leads the steer to a bucket of water. Kirby's eyes are as big as half-dollars--a sure sign he's nervous, Josh says.
"At home, he's usually pretty lazy," Josh chuckles. Josh rubs him, and Kirby, whom Josh raised from a calf, licks his neck and head-butts Josh's shoulder. There were times when Kirby and Josh's other steer and three heifers would kick or run from him. Now, Josh sits in the trough as Kirby eats out of it.
"Josh Wynkoop," bleats the loudspeaker for the Junior Showmanship category.
Josh whispers in the steer's floppy ear, as he pats his head. "Hey, Kirby boy. How you doing? Come on, boy, you know it's me. I know you can hear me."
Mabe, 37, runs through last-minute tips: Pay attention to the judge. Smile. Pay attention to your cow. Don't fiddle with your cow's hooves too much. And don't look at your mom and me.
"Sometimes he listens; sometimes he just doesn't or he simply forgets," says Mabe.
The iron gate opens to the ring, and the youngsters line up. Kirby immediately goes "leg locked," refusing to move.
Wynkoop bites her lip.
Josh furrows his brow, yanks Kirby's halter and pulls him forward. The pair walk around the ring a few times. Josh flashes a freckle-faced smile at the judge. He does a counterclockwise turn (according to 4-H rules, he was supposed to go clockwise) to keep Kirby still. Moments later, the judge motions for him to maneuver Kirby into the spot for second place.
"Yes! He did it!" shouts his mother.
The judge says he did a "tremendous job" controlling "an old steer who was just being contrary."
Josh carries a navy blue director's chair with "Reserve Champion-Junior Showmanship" embroidered on it and a second-place pink ribbon back to his stall. Kirby also wins Reserve Champion of the Cross Continental class--the one where judges eyeball him and try to determine the quality of his meat.
That makes him one of the highest-priced cows at Friday night's livestock auction. Some of the money will go toward livestock for next year's fair. A chunk will go for feed. A small portion is his for play. The rest is for college.
But the money gets to be secondary.
"He's my best buddy," Josh says, teary-eyed hours before the sale. "He's the one who lets me sit on him."
His involvement with animals has changed his behavior, say his parents, friends and teachers. They describe him as hitting an unruly stage in the second grade. He was stubborn, daydreamed in class, talked back to teachers and refused to do his homework.
Then he saw Mabe breaking in a calf. He was hooked. Within weeks of buying his first calf, his parents say, he started becoming more responsible. His grades went from C's and D's to B's. Math, one of his worst subjects, became one of his best.
"He knows that when he gets home from school, he's got something down there waiting to be fed," Wynkoop says. Her rule: If his grades drop, an animal goes to the slaughterhouse.
Josh buses tables a few hours each weekend at a local restaurant to earn extra money for brushes and other equipment for his livestock and to have some change in his pocket when he goes roller skating.
Caring for the animals has brought the family closer, says Wynkoop, who refinishes furniture for a living. She and Mabe, a farm manager, help Josh wash, feed, clip and walk the cows.
"This isn't like a kid playing baseball where the kid's out there on the field and the parent is up in the stands yelling at him to catch the ball and get to first," she says. "Josh is too young to do all the clipping, grooming and washing himself. We have to get in there and help him, instead of just towing the kid to a game."
Josh has taken to it so thoroughly that he sees his future in it. "I'm going to be a farmer with a whole bunch of John Deeres," he tells Jake Bramhall, 9.
"No," Jake replies, "I'm going to be a farmer with lots of Case Internationals. . . They're the best."
"But John Deere's got better mechanics," Josh tells Jake, who is staring at a display of orange Case tractors with the look children usually reserve for snow cones.
They agree to disagree and run off toward the barns.
Kirby shifts his weight as Josh approaches. By this time next week, Kirby will be steak and hamburger. "You know you raise them to go to market," he says matter of factly.
But his mother admits she gets attached. "You take this untamed animal who is wild, and you break its spirit and you make it as tame as a puppy dog," she says.
Josh shrugs at his mother, who says she won't be there when Kirby is hauled away. Mabe will lead Kirby onto the truck.
Mabe says he will unhook the halter, turn and walk off the ramp without looking back.