As evening fell on a sticky Friday at the Howard County Fair, an auctioneer in a cowboy hat began rattling off numbers like they were tongue-twisters. But behind the scenes in the barn, the 4-H members lined up in their crisp white shirts could barely hear her over the bleating sheep, the squawking chickens and the snorting hogs rolling under the roar of fans.
For many of these young 4-H'ers, chatting restlessly and preening each other's hair as the animals they clung to kicked up sawdust, the livestock auction was not about money, or competition, or even the animals themselves. It was about coming together.
"Everyone here is friends," said Bryce Heath, a self-assured 11-year-old in his third year of the program, who was brushing a muscly dark steer more than 10 times his weight.
"Lifelong friendships, that's what this gives them," said Laura Heath, Bryce's mother. Heath also showed in 4-H as a child, making friends that she said endure today. She said those friends now bring their children to participate in the program.
"Most of these kids are second- or third-generation 4-H'ers," Heath said. "It's an honor for them. It's an honor for us."
The 4-H livestock auction is the yearly culmination of a program in which young people raise cows, pigs, sheep, goats, rabbits and chickens. After feeding and caring for them for months, the children don green ties and khaki pants, brush their livestock with glitter and walk them into the auction ring.
Though on paper the livestock program is a competition, with judges and grand champions, Heath said the competition is a healthy one, among friends.
"It was so neat," she said of a previous competition Bryce won this year, "because the other kids were congratulating him. They all hugged and high-fived each other."
Bryce said rather than competing, his friends help each other take care of the animals, the older kids often giving advice to the younger ones.
Sale committee chairman Charles Coles said the program also teaches children business skills and responsibility — especially, Coles said, "when you have a 60-pound child next to a 1,400-pound steer."
"It teaches me respect and how to manage a lot," Bryce said. "Like money. I don't spend one penny unless it's for my animals."
4-H participants, who range in age from 8 to 18, have to pass a series of qualifications to have their livestock entered in the auction, Coles said.
Animals are weighed to ensure that they are within the ideal range for their species. Kids also have to keep records to show that the animal met an adequate rate of weight gain. Finally, a professional grades the animal, checking things like the fat on its back.
"If they get those three conditions done, they go to the sale," Coles said.
"Usually there's a few disappointments," Coles said. This year, however, the success rate was 100 percent, he said.
Making it to the auction can be bittersweet for the children, who become attached to the animals they raise, Coles said.
"All of them get a little lump in their throats when they see their animals go," Coles said. "Even me. I'm 59 years old, I've been doing it for years now, and when I sell a cow, I get a lump in my throat."
Selling animals year after year, as most children do, "never really toughens you up," he said. "It just conditions you."
Letting go of the animals is a lesson many 4-H'ers learn young; most said their first year was hardest. But, Bryce said, it is something they get used to.
For the youngest or most attached to their animals, however, the community will often come to the rescue. The winning bidder for one of the first-year 4-H'ers announced that they would be donating the goat back, so the girl could keep it.
"My friend's grandfather wants to buy my goat but then wants to keep it as a pet," said Brittney Morris, 13, of Woodbine. "There's lots of places the animals can go besides meat."
Even those who do sell their animals for meat often find a larger purpose in the sale. Sometimes children choose a charity to donate their profits to before the auction. In a previous show this year, Heath said Bryce won $500 and donated it to a child in Frederick County with a rare brain tumor.
Most children also put some of their earnings into purchasing and feeding next year's livestock, Heath said. And many children save the money to help pay for college. Brittney said she has already saved about $6,000.
The children are able to put the money toward these goals, Coles said, because buyers often purchase the animals for more than market price in order to support the kids.
Alexis Winkler, an 18-year-old in her last year of 4-H, showed a lamb that attracted a good-natured bidding war. As the price grew higher, the crowd cheered louder and her mother's gold pom-poms waved higher in the back. When they reached the winning bid at $31 a pound, the crowd roared.
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In order to receive their checks, Coles said, children have to put together gift baskets and write their buyers thank you notes, a practice that he says teaches them gratitude.
"It's not just a given that someone's gonna spend thousands and thousands of dollars for your animal," Coles said, saying writing a thank you note "makes the kid more appreciative and feel less entitled."
Buyers ranged from local businesses to chains like Giant Food and even family and friends. County Executive Allan Kittleman placed the winning bid on the third lamb, saying he purchases an animal every year.
"You really realize how people in the community come out to this," said 4-H'er Breanne Yencha, 15, of Sykesville.
That community, Coles said, does not end once kids grow out of the program. Many participants, like his own daughter, come back as volunteers or as buyers, because the experience is so rewarding that they want to give back.