BROOKSVILLE — Today marks payday — and, hopefully, pay-down-the-debt day — for some 100 4-H Club and FFA members who have been at work for months without remuneration.
They have fed, trained, managed and cared for their market hogs, beef steers, meat rabbits and chickens. Their efforts culminate at the auctioneer's gavel during the annual livestock sale at 11 a.m. today, the final day of the Hernando County Fair and Youth Livestock Show.
"I always hope for the best," said Willow Fletcher, who had swine and steer projects, echoing the thoughts of others who have invested hundreds of dollars in their livestock endeavors.
Last year, the 17-year-old from Nobleton made a profit on her hog, which sold for $2.55 a pound, but lost $400 to $500 on her steer, which brought $1.30 a pound. She had paid $900 for the steer as a feeder calf — "too much," she ultimately calculated.
A fellow member of the Brooksville Senior FFA at Hernando High School, Kayla Cole, 17, fared better. She turned a profit on both her hog and steer, selling for $2 and $2.50 a pound, respectively.
Bidders topped their buying at the 2011 sale at an unofficial $2.45 a pound for hogs and $2.48 a pound for steers.
Comparing purchase prices at other county fairs, some parents and youth leaders lament that Hernando buyers aren't sufficiently supportive and that the fair association should do more to promote the sale.
A full-page ad ran in the Hernando Times earlier this week, urging sale participation and explaining buying options.
Fair livestock co-chairwoman and Jolly Ranchers 4-H Club leader Tammy Fincher reiterated: "We've been encouraging buyers to get together with neighbors or family (to buy) a half an animal and share. … It's tax deductible for businesses if they even give (meat) to their employees or if they take part in the buy-back or add-ons."
Add-ons, for example, are outright donations to any or all exhibitors to show respect for the youths' efforts.
Caitlin Lorensen of Brooksville, a sophomore in Hernando High's FFA chapter, garnered some $200 in add-ons with her steer project last year, thanks to writing letters to prospective supporters. Still, she was out some $300 to $400 when her beef sold for just $1.50 a pound. Not dismayed, she's back this year with a 945-pound Angus cross.
"To me, he looks good," Lorensen said as she practiced leading him in a grassy plot outside the cattle tent at the fairgrounds earlier this week.
Some projects engage teamwork.
Six girls in the Brooksville FFA joined forces to raise a chapter steer that none could do on her own, limited either by funds or by skills. The responsibility included marketing, with the girls writing six letters a week for the past month urging prospective bidders to come to the sale.
"It was a good learning experience," said team member Ariel Leibensperger, 15. "I don't know if I'd do it again, but I'm glad I did it this year."
Fletcher, on the other hand, is hooked. In her third year of showing, she said, "I love it. I enjoy the people, the atmosphere here. There's nothing like it."
Added Lorensen: "I like being around animals."
Chelsea Gatland, 16, feared she would miss the show ring experience this year. Her steer never outgrew his unruly personality, so she left him at home.
"I didn't want anybody to get hurt," she explained.
This week, the FFA group of six took Gatland on as a team member. She's been helping feed and groom the chapter steer.
The Hernando youths can only dream about the livestock prices at other nearby county fairs, particularly Pasco's, usually the highest in the state, said that fair's manager, Richard Brown.
Just weeks ago, Pasco's 56 steers sold, including add-ons, for an average of $4.26 a pound; its 138 market hogs went for $5.51 a pound.
At meetings of the state Federation of County Fairs, Brown said, "everybody's blown away by our prices. We're absolutely lucky."
But it's more than just luck, he stressed.
"We have a good community, a lot of support from business," he said.
His advice to Hernando exhibitors is to add marketing to their workload.
"Go find a new buyer," he said.
Today's sale at the Hernando fair is expected to include 42 steers, 49 hogs, three pens of three rabbits each and three pens of three meat chickens each.
Beth Gray can be contacted at [email protected]