It’s county fair time again
Fall is my favorite time of year. Last week we took the petunias out of the pots on the porch and put in pansies for the cooler weather ahead. We’ve been scoping out the mums at our favorite roadside stands and farmer’s markets, and pretty soon my kids will start collecting pumpkins from Forrest Hall Farm, Kasper’s Kastle and Bowles Farm.
We make it a point each fall to visit as many of the local farms as we can fit into our busy schedule. This time of year is just ideal for spending a day outside, traipsing through the corn maze, going on a hayride and getting friendly with the goats and ponies in the petting zoo.
The day pumpkin lattes appear in the coffee shops is a magical day for many people. It can only mean one thing — fall is just around the corner.
Something else marvelous happens this time of year and the painted signs popping up all over St. Mary’s County should clue you in. It’s county fair time again.
It sure is fun to walk through all the buildings and admire the entries, from the best strawberry jam to a pumpkin the size of a boulder. And who doesn’t love a stuffed ham sandwich for dinner and one of those delicious funnel cakes for dessert? Of course all the rides and games are a hit with the younger crowd, too.
A few years ago, I was thumbing through the fair catalog and came across the page advertising the livestock auction held on Saturday night. I had never heard of it and was intrigued. It felt good to buy fruits, vegetables and eggs from local farms, why not do the same for meat while supporting the 4-Hers in our community?
I spent the better part of Friday at the fair checking out all the animals in the livestock barns. Honestly, I couldn’t tell the difference from one steer to the next, but the 4-Hers in the barns were more than happy to answer my questions. It was evident the animals were well cared for and healthy. The kids were experts on their livestock, and the informational posters on display in the barns provided ample information about the different cuts of meat from each kind of animal.
The livestock auction is the culmination of all the effort the 4-Hers have put into raising their animals over the past year or two. Yes, you read that right, it takes about 18 months to raise a steer to bring to market. That is a pretty impressive long-term project.
Barbara Dobbins, the 4-H program assistant in Leonardtown, said, “The kids who raise the animals are actual entrepreneurs. It’s an entire yearlong process for the kids to raise their hogs to bring to the auction. It’s almost two years of hard work before a steer is ready to go to market.”
Over the course of that time, these kids have cared for the animals, calculated how much feed they’ve purchased and how much the animal has grown, and, once the auction is
over, how much profit they’ve made off the fruits of their labor.
Mike Van Ryswick has been a fixture in the 4-H barns for the past 12 years. His family raises Angus cows, pigs, goats, and chickens on a 115-acre farm in Medley’s Neck. His wife, Mary, was in 4-H herself and sold the animals she raised at the St. Mary’s County Fair 4-H Livestock Auction when she was a youngster.
Now three of their children, 16-year-old Mikey, 14-year-old Sara, and 10-year-old Derek are following in their mother’s footsteps as members of the Tudor Hall 4-H club. This year the kids each have raised the maximum number of hogs allowed, 5, so the family will be bringing 15 hogs to the fairgrounds later this week for the auction.
While many of the 4-Hers purchase young animals to raise for market, the Van Ryswicks rear their own stock on their farm in Medley’s Neck. They breed the hogs in November, the young are born in March, and by the middle of September, the market hogs should be ready for auction. It takes a 4-Her an entire year of planning, preparation and hard work to get a hog ready for market. That’s an effort every one of those kids should be extremely proud of.
On Saturday night, I headed over to the fair office and got a bidding number and picked a butcher from a list. My sisterin-law accompanied me to the auction. We’d decided to bid on a hog and split the cuts of meat between us.
The bleachers in the arena were packed with bidders and there was a nervous excitement in the air. First the smaller animals, the lambs and goats, were auctioned off. Next up were the hogs. I had my number at the ready.
We ended up with a fine looking hog that weighed 290 pounds. When the auction ended we headed over to the fair office to square up the bill. We had already picked a butcher from a list so there was nothing else to do except wait for the phone call that the meat was ready for pick up.
We chose the Alvey Brothers in Clements to do the butchering. A separate fee is due to the butcher when the meat is picked up. All the cuts were wrapped and labeled nicely, put into boxes and ready for the freezer.
I wondered how farm-raised sausage, bacon and pork chops would differ from store-bought. Would I be able to taste the extra care, better feed and the fresh air, sunshine and exercise this hog most certainly enjoyed daily? The answer is a definite yes. Everything was a cut above, but the sausage was, by far, the tastiest that ever graced my fork.