4H auction combines education, fundraising, fresh meat

Mike Dunham
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News

PALMER -- At noon Saturday at the Alaska State Fair, you'll be able to do something you generally can't do at a fair in the lLower 48; bid on a reindeer at the 4H Club's Jr. Market Livestock Auction. And while reindeer steaks and sausage are common fare at Alaska tables, one still might wonder how safe that meat is.

Don't worry. There are hundreds of animals exhibited inside the Farm Exhibits Barn at the fair (not counting the bees), and every single one of them is checked by a veterinarian before it's let in.

For several hours on Tuesday afternoon, Assistant State Veterinarian Jay Fuller may have been the busiest man in Alaska. He had the task of inspecting more than 70 chickens, geese, turkeys and other poultry coming into the big exhibit structure. He lifted their wings, fingered their feet and swabbed each bird's beak.

Tuesday was particularly busy. That was the day when 4H Club members brought in their livestock. Cattle in halters, lambs on leashes, bunnies in cages, poultry in portable pet kennels, goats carried in arms, swine cajoled to their pens in hefty steel pig walkers and reindeer led on ropes.

While Fuller dealt with the domesticated fowl, fellow veterinarians Teresa Beck, Bert Gore and Phil Meyer handled the mammals.

Beck took charge of the rabbits and guinea pigs. "I'm looking for signs of respiratory disease, runny eyes, noses, external parasites, crusty skin -- anything that could be contagious to the rabbit next door," she said.

Each kind of animal is prone to specific maladies the vets look for. "Lice are common in goats in general," said Beck. "With cows, we're looking for ringworms and viral warts. With reindeer, it's kind of the same thing."

The beak swabbing was conducted to check for avian flu. Fuller actually travels around the state and does the same thing at fairs in other regions. Fairs are a good place to test a lot of birds at once, Beck said.

Most of the birds accepted their inspection with relative calm as long as they were close to the person who's been feeding them for as long as they could remember. But still, a 40 pound bronze tom turkey, with it's sharp, eagle-like talons, can put up a significant struggle if it thinks there's some reason to.

Crowded with people, trailers, vehicles and a menagerie of unfamiliar creatures, the checkpoint understandably makes some creatures a little edgy. Aria Beame and her friend Brittya Wegner stood on a pig walker containing Beame's Yorkshire cross pig, Hamlietta, trying to hold it in place. Hamblietta was squealing and trying to crawl over the walker after a small boy made faces at her. She weighs 217 pounds, which looked like about twice as much as Beame and Wegner put together.

"She's usually not like this," said Beame.

"The bigger the animal, the stronger it'll be," said Beck. "The cows, especially, can be a little bit onery." There are stories of vets injured by animals during check-ins. "It's hard work and large animal veterinaries are hard to come by," Beck said.

The fair vets tend to come from the Valley. Fuller is based in Anchorage, but Meyer works at the Wasilla Veterinary Clinic and Gore, a retired State Veterinarian, has Crosswinds Veterinary Service in Palmer.

Beck, who grew up in Palmer, now works at the North Star Animal Hospital in her home town. She was a 4Her herself and said she "highly benefitted" from the experience.

"You learn about agriculture, contact buyers, do workshops about the animals and their care," she said. "If you want to get into a professional school 4H helps you get the communication skills and experiences that will make you a positive candidate."

To have a market animal, that is one that will be sold at the auction, a 4H member has to master public speaking, money management and making deadlines said Crystal Roberts, of the Pioneer Peak 4H Club. That's in addition to raising the animal and educating yourself about it.

The educational component seems to be working. Meyer and Gore recalled some years when large numbers of animals were rejected due to health issues. But Beck knew of no such rejected animals this year.

"I think people are becoming more aware of hygiene and disease prevention," she said.

Some animals in the pens are just being shown to the public, but others are the market livestock that will be auctioned on Saturday; signs at the pens indicate which are which. The market animals have to meet other criteria, like falling into the right weight parameters. A pig, for instance, must weigh at least 200 pounds.

And the animal owners are required to drum up business for the auction. The age range for 4H Club members is 9 to 19 and older members, who may have nine or 10 auctions under their belt, will have developed a kind of customer base over time, said Jenny Wren, the Mat-Su/Copper River 4H District Vice President of the Large Livestock Committe.

"They could target one buyer and sell their livestock," she said. "But we need them to bring in buyers for the younger ones. We need 80 bidders at the auction."

On Wednesday, 4H officials said that 24 pigs, 12 sheep, eight goats, six calves and 4 steers would be in Saturday's auction. And three reindeer.

"We're waiting to see what will happen with the reindeer," said Glenna Stanley, Secretary for the local 4H Large Livestock Committee. "It's been several years since we've had any come in."

In a previous year, two of the reindeer were in fact purchased as pets. But that's not the usual fate for market livestock. The winning bidder generally contacts an area slaughter house and picks up the butchered and packaged cuts later.

But first, the public gets a good look at the auction items. On Wednesday, there were a series of showmanship events in the livestock ring at the Farm Exhibits building. The owners walked their animals around the ring so that judges could evaluate them. The owner is expected to show that he or she has control of the animal.

"The showmanship event is required, because we want them to be educated about their animals," said Wren, "not just throw food at it."

Buyers at the auction may be confident that the meat is healthy, local and, by all appearances, nurtured with loving attention. But it's not exactly cheap. A pig generally goes for between $3 and $5 a pound Stanley said. That's on the hoof and it doesn't include whatever the slaughterhouse charges.

That means Hamlietta should fetch between $600 and $1,000.

If Beame is like most of the 4Hers in Alaska, most of that will be going into a college fund, said Beck.

"These kids who come to the auction year after year can get some pretty nice savings before they head off to college," Beck said. "It's changed since I was in 4H. When I sold a big pig, I was lucky to get $500. Now it's twice that.

"Of course," she added in a marked understatement, "college is twice what it was, too."

Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.

Anchorage Daily News