On Friday, Aug. 10, a large crowd, composed of young and old, gathered at the front of the Izard County Fairground's poultry building. They were there to watch the poultry chain auction.
"We didn't start until April and they (chickens) don't look as good as normal because of the hot weather. But they'll grow, and they are good layers," Izard County Extension Agent Harold Prewett told the crowd.
Every year, Prewett buys hundreds of baby chicks at about a dollar each, and gives 25 chicks to each 4-H member willing to raise them, and bring their four best to the fair for judging.
By Friday, the chickens had been judged and ribbons handed out. The last step of the tradition was to auction them off to raise money to pay for next year's poultry ring.
"This is for a good cause, so I'm going to try to get every dollar I can get," auctioneer Tony Watson warned, as he began auctioning off the first cage of four chickens.
While anyone can bid, some familiar names snatched up most of the chickens. Attorney Gray Dellinger, State Rep. Tommy Wren and Circuit Judge Tim Weaver were among those who joined Freedom Ford, Corner Drug and other businesses willing to pay a premium to support the poultry ring program.
"It's a way to introduce youth to the responsibilities of farming," Prewett said.
Most cages of chickens brought $30 to $70 dollars for the 4-H Foundation, which runs the poultry chain program.
The Reserve Champion chickens, owned by Phil Steed, brought $80 for the program.
"I have no idea. I've never done this before," Grand Champion winner Samantha Franks of Calico Rock said, when asked what she did special to raise the chickens the judges rated best.
"They like big peep holes, and I gave them 5 gallons of water a day," Franks said -- plus a lot of chicken feed, which is getting more expensive by the day, because the corn crop is suffering from the drought.
The bidding didn't last long and, when the last bid was made, Rep. Wren came out the winner, paying $200 for the four Grand Champion chickens.
When asked what he planned to do with the chickens, Wren shrugged and said, "Ask Harold (Prewett)."
Since most of the winning bidders don't raise chickens, Prewett gives the chickens back to students who want to keep them, or finds them homes with people who are lovers of chickens and eggs.
"One lady really wanted this bunch," Prewett said, pointing to a cage, "but she got out bid. I guess I'll see if she wants them. She said she would buy them from the winner, because she likes the color of their feathers."
"I just got my first eggs a few days go," Franks said. She added she will be a little sad to see her chickens go but, with a Grand Champion ribbon in hand, the seventh grader is willing to join the poultry ring again next year.
"We did good this year," Prewett said of the auction. "I will give cash prizes to the winners, and have money left to cover expenses for next year."
Samantha should be in line for a reward of $50 or $60.
"This is what a county fair is all about, getting kids to devote time to a project and, hopefully, come away with a renewed interest in farming," Prewett said.
In Fulton County, which also had its fair the week of Aug. 6, similar rituals were followed.
On Friday, Aug. 10, the livestock show barn was busy with children, grade school to high school. They led calves and heifers and steers into the ring, and tried to control them while a judge sized up their entries and asked them questions -- expecting a look in the eye and confident answers.
Some of the participants were involved in the All Star Steer Program, in which rancher C. J. Bishop furnishes young steers in April, and the youth agree to feed and water and care for their animal, so it gains plenty of weight, and is halter trained by the time fair judging rolls around in August.
"You have to keep working with the steer so it shows daily weight gain," said Austin Jennings, who was involved in the steer program the past two years.
According to Jennings, that's not as easy as it sounds. "You have to work them up to it, keep bumping them up. It takes them a while to get used to eating a lot. If you could get a daily gain of four pounds you would be doing great."
After the judging, Bishop takes the steers back, paying so much per pound gained. Youth who can manage their cost, can actually come out with a small profit. Those who feed too much high dollar grain could lose money.
"I really learned what you can do and can't do, as you raise steers," Jennings said.
Has the experience made him interested in continuing to work with cattle?
"Definitely," Jennings, who lives on a family farm, said.
This year, he showed an angus heifer, and came away with a Grand Champion ribbon.