Eight-year-old Jason Vanisko admitted he was a little sad about selling his 1,708-pound steer, Michael, at the 4-H livestock sale at the Howard County Fair. He had raised the animal for more than a year, bottle-feeding it when it was a calf. "I'm sad to let it go," he said.
But he was happy to auction his lamb, a 122-pounder named George. "I'm not sad to sell my lamb," said the Ellicott City resident. "It's mean. It head-butts me, and it tries to get away."
Jason's emotions about the animals didn't change anything. Love them or hate them, selling the animals they have raised is a central part of the 4-H experience. And Jason held no illusions about what would happen to the creatures he had nurtured. "They go to the slaughterhouse," he said, without a trace of emotion. "They get killed, and then people eat them."
All around Jason, the 4-H Lamb, Steer, Swine, Poultry, Rabbit and Goat Sale, held Friday night at the fair, was a whirl of activity, as the animals one by one were paraded into the show ring and sold to the highest bidder. The rat-a-tat of the auctioneer's voice -- give me 2, can someone give me 2, OK, we've got 2 -- could be heard over the bovine moos and the soft bah-bah of the lambs. The smells of hay and manure mingled with the greasy-rich odors of French fries and funnel cakes from nearby food vendors.
The animals are sold by the pound, mostly to families or to organizations, such as local banks or supermarkets, that come out to support the 4-H participants. The prices are generally based more on relationships between the 4-H member and the buyer than anything else, since the quality of all the 4-H-raised animals is high, said Robert Maupin, a dentist with the Lisbon Dental Center, who planned to buy a pig.
Maupin, 38, was holding a sheet of paper listing all the pigs for sale, along with their owners and how much they weigh. He had placed checkmarks next to the pigs being sold by his patients. "It's just fun," he said. "It's a good time."
And he said he has good memories of 4-H. Maupin had been involved in 4-H as a youngster, he said, and selling his animals had helped him raise money for college and dental school.
It was Jason's first time selling animals he had raised, but his older sister, 11-year-old Karen, had been doing it for years. Their parents, Brian and Alicia Vanisko, are the organizational leaders of the 54-member Dayton 4-H Club. The family started by selling rabbits six years ago, Brian Vanisko said, then added lambs, chickens and steers. Their 5-year-old daughter, Allison, has joined 4-H this year.
Like other 4-H participants, the family had acquired the smaller animals only a few months before the auction. But the steer had been with the family for more than a year, giving Jason more time to get attached.
Alicia Vanisko said she is careful to teach her children that the animals are not pets, and they are to be sold as food. She would make a point of standing next to the steer and point out all the cuts of meat on its body, she said. "The whole time we have them, we say, 'This is a meat animal,'" she said.
Brian Vanisko noted that raising and selling animals are only part of the 4-H experience. Participants also learn farm skills ranging from baking and sewing to growing vegetables.
Joseph Boarman, 13, who attends Glenelg Country School, has sold animals at the auction for four years. "I just sold a lamb and a pig," he said. He will use the money from the auction to repay his brother for the animal food, and put the rest in his savings account.
He has a trick for staying unemotional about the animals he raises. "I don't give them names or anything like some people do," he said, "because then they get attached to them."