Keith Wood, 14, leaned gingerly against the pen holding his three rust-colored Duroc pigs Friday at the 113th Annual Calvert County Fair. He looked every inch the farmer-to-be as he talked about crop yields, livestock market prices and city folk.
Wood's family history in Calvert County stretches all the way back to 1654, he said proudly. The family farm, Creek's End, is named for Buzzard's Creek, which dwindles into a trickle somewhere on the Woods' 400 acres in Prince Frederick.
The fair is a family tradition, and with it comes the sometimes harsh reality that Wood will have to sell the animals he has nurtured for a year or more to the highest bidder at the fair's annual 4-H livestock auction.
All his life Wood has lived and worked on a farm. So he has learned not to care too much. But at last year's auction, he sold a prized steer and still stings from the experience.
"I got so attached to him, I cried on the night I sold him," Wood said. "I begged and begged my parents to see if I could keep him as a pet, but I had to let him go." While some teenagers share cotton candy and sneak kisses on the fair's colorful midway, young 4-H members often forgo corn dogs and carnival rides for a few final hours with a beloved lamb, steer, pig or goat. Some of the more experienced young farmers insist that it's only the first sale that hurts. After that, it's about the money that the livestock auction brings in.
Try telling that to Katie Ogden, 11, of Prince Frederick. Her face crinkled up at the very thought of putting Rusty, her grand champion goat, on the auction block. But Rusty was up for grabs, and so was her little brother's lamb.
"You try in the beginning to make them understand what happens," said Sheri Ogden, Katie's mother. "But it's so easy to get attached. [The children] will probably both be bawling and I'll be bidding to buy them back."
About 35,000 people streamed into the Calvert County fairgrounds this weekend, most of them stopping by the livestock exhibits for at least a peek at the grooming that goes into a show-quality animal. The 4-H members rise with the sun to wash, dry, shear and brush their livestock. Many of them, like 12-year-old best friends Katie Goddard and Terri Rollins, aspire to be career farmers.
The two girls, both from La Plata, have been showing ewes together since they were 6. At this year's fair, 20 prize ribbons adorned the pen where Babs, Jessie and Erin rested on the straw-covered ground. Rollins admitted she shed a few tears the first time one of her goats was sold to a petting zoo, but she's getting used to the goodbyes now.
The friends' mothers, Brenda Goddard and Marty Rollins, were also in 4-H together as girls, and understand the pains of giving up their animals. Brenda bought her first car--a 1977 Mustang Cobra--by selling her pigs. The sacrifice is small compared with the priceless lessons learned in farming, the women agreed.
"It's a good life," Brenda Goddard said. "It teaches your kids values--to raise animals and know the value of a dollar. You also get a lot of opportunities to get to the fairs and make friends for life."