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Alachua County Youth Fair and Livestock Show builds life skills in competitors

Percy stood firm in his spot and shook his head in defiance. No matter how much Tessa Betke tugged and pulled, the steer wasn’t moving until good and ready.

Then Betke, 17, a senior at Santa Fe High School in Alachua City, scratched his brisket lovingly. As quickly as his tantrum came, it was gone, and Percy continued marching about the Agriculture and Equestrian Center arena in Newberry.

Percy was among 100 competitors in the annual Alachua County Youth Fair and Livestock Show over the weekend. Students like Betke gathered from all over the county to show off their best cows, pigs, horses, goats, rabbits and chickens.

The event, which began with animal weigh-ins and camper check-ins on Thursday and runs through Tuesday, seeks to build confidence and responsibility in students through livestock and other agricultural projects. The students participate in Future Farmers of America and 4-H, two youth agriculture programs available to students through Alachua County Public Schools and the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS).

“Just raising an animal or a non-livestock project, it builds record keeping skills, life skills, leadership skills, citizenship skills,” said Cindy Saunders, director of the Alachua County UF/IFAS Extension in Newberry. “I mean you name it – 4-H and FFA are building those skills.”

The event brought together approximately 85 beef animals, 20 market steer, 80 poultry, 11 breeding goats, 30 dairy goats, 40 rabbits, 120 hogs and over 4000 people, according to Pam Carter, secretary at the UF/IFAS extension.

For the most part, Percy’s tantrum aside, the bulls obediently trailed behind their teenage handlers, all of whom were easily outweighed by tenfold.

Heifers – female cows intended for breeding – were strutted around the arena in their freshly combed fur, judged based on their feminine looks and breeding features, said Chylec Clair, a judge in the steer competition.

Once a former competitor himself, Clair grew up on a ranch in western Wyoming and has been judging livestock for over 20 years.

“I always looked up to the judge when I was showing animals,” he said. “I would take what he said and use it to hone my skills, so that I could come back better. Now I get to be that guy for these kids.”

Market goats were analyzed for ideal ratios of lean muscle to fat; breeding goats were judged on proportional structures and larger bellies that make them ideal for breeding, said goat judge Kyle Mendes, 29, who also grew up showing animals at agriculture fairs.

The center hosted the event for the second time after the Alachua County Commission purchased the arena. On Friday, the arena was dedicated to former Commissioner Lee Pinkoson, who ensured that the commission purchased the arena in his final year on the board.

This year, the fair operated without COVID restrictions, such as masks and social distancing after the county mandates were lifted on Feb. 28.

Brooke Bailey, an agriculture teacher at Santa Fe High, said she has seen her students grow through this competition over her past five years of teaching.

One of Bailey’s favorite parts of her job is teaching students who have never been around animals and give them the confidence to handle them professionally.

“‘I’ve never touched a cow and now I’m about to administer medicine to it, or I’m about to provide an ear tag, or I’m about to see this cow give birth’: These are the things the teacher said she loves hearing from them after they have been in the program long enough.

“It’s a really great experience to see that,” Bailey said.

Betke, a Future Farmers student, was among those who had never been around animals before.

Three years later, she said, she’s more confident and loves working with her Percy, who was named after her favorite young adult book character. She said she wants to have a small herd of her own one day and will apply what she’s learned to other parts of her life.

“I love the chance to just be outside, work with animals and have that time for myself,” Betke said.

Kyle Mendes, 29, a goat judge who grew up showing animals at agriculture fairs, said he hopes the competitors will grow from the experience, even if they don’t stay in the industry.

“It’s one of those rare things where the fondness of the memory doesn’t come from winning or losing or just a fond memory of going to Disneyland,” Mendes said. “It’s the challenge and struggle of working together with your family and friends to accomplish something that really leads these kids into the special and unique people they’re going to be.”

Carson Willis, the grand champion in both the market steer and beef heifer competitions, said the agriculture program has helped to shape who she is today.

“It’s just a lot of hard years and a lot of hard work that have been put in and it’s my senior year,” she said through happy tears. “It’s a little bittersweet. It makes it extra special to win this year.”

Willis, who has been showing animals since she was 8, said the experience in the program has given her a better work ethic and allowed her to be more independent.

Her steer, along with many others in the show, will be auctioned on Tuesday.

Sarah Breske is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by emailing