The livestock barns at the Calaveras County fairgrounds were eerily quiet, with animals sleeping in pens under the sound of falling rain.

On a regular third Sunday in May, the barns would be filled with the hectic excitement of FFA and 4-H kids sprucing up their steers, goats, lambs and pigs for auction. But today, there were no humans to be found—except for a small group of tired-looking adults huddled inside the fairgrounds livestock office. All members of the Junior Livestock Committee (JLC), they watched as buyers placed bids on photos of exhibitors and their animals, uploaded onto SC Online Sales.

The first virtual auction in Calaveras County Fair history brought in more than $435,000 from local buyers—not a bad year, considering the circumstances, says JLC President Shawn Westberg.

Last year’s auction was the highest grossing in recent years, according to Westberg, with roughly $600,000 going to youth exhibitors. However, this year’s total could go up by an average of $50,000 with the addition of boosts—an extra amount often gifted to exhibitors by buyers at the time of purchase.

“There’s always the negative, but a lot of people are super grateful that we stepped up and made something happen for the kids, rather than not doing anything. A lot of fairs aren’t doing anything,” Westberg said.

Due to the event’s success, Westberg says visiting judges have suggested its relatively seamless format as a model for upcoming junior livestock events statewide.

However, organizing a virtual livestock auction during a pandemic was a “long and drawn-out” process that involved winning the approval of county and state health officials, Westberg said. While the JLC formulated a plan shortly after the fair was officially canceled on April 8, it would be weeks until their plan, revised and submitted to the county by fair CEO Laurie Giannini, was approved.

Fair Exhibit Coordinator Kasey Musachia and the 39th Agricultural District Association were also integral in making the event happen, Westberg said.

On auction day and the days leading up to it, the JLC had to follow strict safety guidelines from the California Department of Food and Agriculture, as well as the state and county health departments. Exhibitors were not permitted to exit their vehicles as JLC members unloaded their animals, weighed them, tagged them and sorted them into pens.

Over the course of the weekend, Westberg and other members fed, watered and cared for the animals while masked judges inspected and ranked each entry. The “shows” could be watched by exhibitors at home via Westberg’s new YouTube channel. The feed and shavings, usually brought by exhibitors, were donated this year by Spence Ranch Feed and Supply in Angels Camp, while Bret Harte High School teacher Verne Johnson and his family fed the JLC, free of charge.

“Things aren’t perfect, but you can still put in the hard work and make things happen,” Westberg said. “I wish the kids could have been here. That’s where my heart’s at. I feel for our seniors who weren’t able to show. That bothers me.”

Still, with many months of care and money invested into their market animals by the time the fair was canceled, youth exhibitors had a lot to lose if the auction didn’t go forward. This year, the Supreme Champion and Reserve Champion steers sold for $9,000 each, and the Supreme Champion hog went for $3,000. The cheapest hog sold for $1,200.

Westberg says those prices hold up well to recent years, indicating that other factors may be to blame for the lesser total amount. Due to the set pickup time for sold animals, the auction ended while some bids were still coming in. Additionally, exhibitors were limited to only selling their project animals, bringing down the total number of animals auctioned from last year.

“It wasn’t the same, but we made the best out of a bummer situation,” he said.

Although the experience yielded ideas about how to improve next year, JLC members reminded each other that the unusual event was, hopefully, not something they would ever have to replicate.

“I learned that I really appreciated kids doing barn duty,” Westberg said.

For a full list of this year’s junior livestock show results, visit frogtown.org/livestock-show-results.

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Dakota graduated from Bret Harte in 2013 and went to Davidson College, NC where she earned a bachelor's degree in Arab studies. After spending time studying in the Middle East and Europe, she is happy to be home, writing about the community she loves.

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