Bailey Harrison and her market lamb Erwin. Harrison, a junior at Vale High School, has shown market lambs at the Malheur County Fair since the second grade. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)

VALE – Last summer was the first time in 11 years that Bailey Harrison didn’t cry when she sold her market lamb at the Malheur County Fair. Everett was a wild one. Good riddance.

This year was going to be different.

Harrison has been working with her lamb Erwin since April and things were shaping up. Erwin took to training like a champ. Harrison hoped this would be the year she’d finally win the coveted Grand Champion Market Lamb banner that her sister had won before her.

Watch an Enterprise video from last summer's Malheur County Fair

But Harrison’s dreams, along with those of many other students in FFA, were dashed last week. The Malheur County Fair Board decided to cancel this year’s event as mandated by Gov. Kate Brown’s order banning gatherings of more than 100 people through September. 

Heartbroken, disappointed – those are some of the words Vale FFA Advisor Anna-Marie Chamberlain used to describe her reaction when she found out. The hours of hard work that students have already put into their market animals, not to mention the money they’ve invested, won’t have the same outlet this year.

Chamberlain had to break the news to her students via videoconference.

Vale High freshman Rylie Stokes recalls her disappointment.

“I was bummed,” said the 15-year-old. “Especially since fair is such a big part of my summer because, coming from an ag community, I’ve grown up showing livestock and livestock is pretty much the sport that I do.”

Stokes had a whole menagerie she planned to show this summer. There was Clover, the heifer in her dairy replacement project, and eight Jersey cows. There was a pig named Maniac, a steer called Max, and her dairy goat Ember. Then there were the dairy cattle: Winter, Gigi and Jasmine among them.

Stokes had ambitions for this summer. She hoped to bring home as many awards as she did last year and have her hard work all year pay off at the fair, she said.

She also planned to sell Clover. Last year, Stokes’ market pig – Dwayne “Duroc” Johnson – went for $1,200.

“Ultimately the auction is a big scholarship opportunity for these kids,” Chamberlain said.

Students typically use the money to pay for expenses associated with raising their animals and the rest goes into college funds.

But the profit on these projects, many which kick off a year in advance, may take a hit this year. Students typically get offers way over market value, Chamberlain said, but the economic downturn sparked by the pandemic may affect sales.

The Malheur County Fair Board announced on its Facebook page that the Sales Committee is working to facilitate a virtual sale to help salvage the students’ hard work. Details have yet to be released.

While the virtual sale will help, it’s just not the same, said Stokes.

“I enjoy the quality aspect, but the showmanship aspect is something I spend more time working on,” she said. “I won’t be able to have that hands-on experience.”

Rylie Stokes, a Vale High freshman, poses with Neece, the oldest Jersey cow in her herd. Stokes planned to sell her heifer Clover at this year’s Malheur County Fair. (Submitted)

Harrison, a junior at Vale, agreed. That personal connection that comes from meeting someone face to face goes a long way toward enticing buyers.

“This year will also be hard because a lot of people are not getting income so they won’t be able to spend as much money … as they usually do,” Harrison added.

In Vale, Chamberlain expected about 65 students to show livestock this year in all seven species. The number of students participating has gone up dramatically over the years. When she first started in her position three years ago only 13 students participated that summer. Last year saw 42.

It’s not just the showing and auction that will be missing this year. The fair offers students an opportunity to show off in other ways. There are the sewing, baking and art projects that 4H students take part in. Inside the iconic red barn, FFA students bring crop samples and put out photography, metal and woodshop projects and exhibit garden produce.

Besides losing out on the experience of the fair, Chamberlain anticipates some students may not qualify for their FFA state degree. The degree is the highest honor awarded at the state state level in FFA.

Students who work on a project destined for the fair and meet a host of requirements may qualify for the degree. Successfully participating in these time consuming, multi-step projects also frees up students’ senior year schedules and allows them to take an elective course of their choice instead of a mandatory course.

“Some kids are in jeopardy of not meeting the requirements this year because there isn’t a fair,” Chamberlain said.

But Chamberlain does see some silver linings. While students may take a loss on their projects this year, the experience is a good reminder.

“That’s what happens in agriculture for a lot of people. Some years you don’t make a profit, it’s a real-life lesson and unfortunately a lot of kids will discover that this year.”

With the extra time on their hands, many students will find other agricultural avenues to take up their time.

That’s the case for Stokes and Harrison.

For Harrison, the hours she won’t spend preparing for the fair or at the fair will likely go toward an additional summer job on a ranch or farm. 

Stokes is used to spending more than 20 hours a week working and caring for her animals.

She’ll miss the camaraderie among FFA students as they get ready for the shows. Harrison agrees.

“I have a lot of friends that I usually only get to see at the fair,” she said. “It’s hard because I have so many great memories.”

She’ll miss spending time at the fair from sunup to after sundown, she said as she scratched the back of Erwin’s ears.

“He would’ve been a good one this year,” said Harrison. And just like that, it was Erwin’s feeding time.

Have a news tip? Reporter Yadira Lopez: yadira@malheurenterprise.com or 541-473-3377.

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