"No one can say farmers are cold-hearted," said Jason Hough, gesturing toward his son Andrew, 9, whose teary face is buried in the shoulder of his steer "Big Head."
Inside Barn 1 at the Howard County Fairgrounds on Friday, Aug. 9, the boisterous sounds of the Howard County Fair's 50th Annual 4-H Livestock Sale in the nearby show pavilion are muffled, but ever present.
And as Andrew, a first-year member of the Howard County 4-H club, shares an emotional goodbye with the steer he raised for eight months on the family's Mt. Airy farm, Hough, his own shoulder still wet with his son's tears, can't help but feel for his boy.
"This goes on for much longer, I'll be pulling him out," Hough said referring to "Big Head," who is just moments away from being put on auction.
The tears continued, but the show went on. As Andrew's name is called, a straight-faced, tearless face emerges leading "Big Head" on a rope. Bids come in, the gavel goes down, "Big Head" is sold. Andrew leads his steer behind the stage, smiles for the photo with "Big Head" and the buyer, and lets go of the rope.
It's a hard lesson, but one many 4-H members must go through.
"You're talking about a kid getting a 350-pound steer in October or November, raising it to 1,300 pounds for the fair. They get names, they become attached, but they understand the concept" said Stan Miller, a former 4-H program member and the father of four children currently in 4-H.
Miller, who's family operates Idiot's Delight Farm in Woodbine, said it's all part of the farming business.
"We've been around since 1965, but there are families here that haven been doing it a lot longer than we have," Miller said.
Melissa Covolesky, a member of the fair board of directors and a former 4-H member, remembered her first sale all too well.
Eight-years-old at the time, Covolesky, whose family raises beef, among other livestock on Spring Meadow Farm, was so heartbroken that she swore off beef until her college graduation.
"My dad used to say 'You're going to put us out of business,' but I'm one of those soft-hearted animal lovers," she said. "I taught my first cow how to sit down. You spend a lot of time with these animals."
While there may be some tears from 4-H members behind the scenes, it's all smiles inside the auction tent, as each winning bid is accompanied by applause and gratitude from the auctioneer and 4-H community.
"Ultimately, at the end of the day, they know it's a terminal project. They know what they are getting into," said Mark Moxley of the Majestic Meadows Farm in West Friendship.
Moxley's two sons, Thomas, 8, and Stuart, 11, raise chickens, pigs and steers. Stuart has been in the 4-H for three years and talks about the bidding for his chickens like a seasoned vet. But, when it came to the steer, his voice dropped a bit and he began to trail off.
"Sometimes it's just hard," Stuart said. "You work with them and all that, and then they're leaving. It's sad."
Tess Gavigan, 19, said it is something you just have to get used to.
"I think when I was younger it was harder," she Gavigan, who sold her last steer as a 4-H member Saturday. "It's a market animal meant for livestock, meant for eating. You learn that you don't say goodbye, and you're OK. You have to cut it quick, say thank you for everything you did for me and move on to the next project."
"It's sad, but it's a farm lesson," said Covolesky of the auction. "All the money (from the bid) goes into next year's project. ... It's cyclical, it's the cycle of life."