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After a year disrupted by COVID, students grateful for in-person livestock shows at Big Fresno Fair

Kerry Klein
Central High School sophomore Gisele Galaviz exhibits two hogs at the Big Fresno Fair's livestock show and auction: Coco, left, and Chewy.

The first thing you notice in the livestock pavilion at the Big Fresno Fair is the sound. There are the animals, of course: The cows and goats being steered to their enclosures, the squeals of hogs less than excited about being bathed, and the blow dryers fluffing up freshly shorn sheep.

But behind all that is the thrum of an excited crowd: The hurried footsteps of polished boots, the P.A. announcements calling classes of presenters to the show rings, and the cheers of proud parents. 

Credit Kerry Klein / KVPR
A Kingsburg student grooms her lamb ahead of show time.

Though many of the fair’s 600,000 visitors may have been drawn to the fried Oreos, cinnamon buns or Smokey Robinson on the main stage, the draw for hundreds of students was the opportunity to show off their agricultural business skills at the annual livestock show and auction. And they were so glad to be back after a year nearly lost to the pandemic.

Among the more than 800 middle and high school competitors this year were Nicholas and Nathaniel Bonomi of Sanger. The 14- and 16-year-old brothers spent the last year raising steers, Bear and Jack, who they describe as docile and sweet. 

“They’re affectionate, basically. They always come over to you,” said Nicholas. 

“I’ve had ones that were just wild animals,” said Nathaniel. “The one I have right now, we go on walks like people walk their dog.”

The Bonomi brothers have participated in FFA, formerly known as Future Farmers of America, since they were little kids.  Their animal of choice has always been cattle, which they raise in an enclosure on their ranch alongside the family’s other cattle and rows of grapes and almonds. 

Credit Kerry Klein / KVPR
Sanger High School freshman Nicholas Bonomi's steer, Bear, is resting between shows.

FFA and its sister program, 4-H, are practically full-time jobs. Members get up early to feed their animals before school then bathe and train them almost every day, even when getting home late after chapter meetings, sports practice and other extracurricular activities. “You have to put a halter on them, then you have to walk them around in a circle,” Nicholas said. “When you show you have to have their feet in the correct spot so they look the best, so you have to set them up correctly.”

But everything changed with the pandemic. With virtual school, Nathaniel and his brother had a lot more time to spend with Bear and Jack. “I called them COVID cows,” said Nathaniel.

And they started taking them to class. “Our wifi reaches out [to the barn] so I can just kind of prop myself against my cow,” said Nathaniel. “So I’ll just be in my class laying right with him on my iPad listening to my virtual teacher.”

That may have been sweet, but last year’s fair was disappointing. Every October, it’s the culmination of the months of work these students put into their animals. Unlike this year, however, most of the 2020 fair was drive-through-only, and the livestock shows were scaled back. “It was a one-day fair,” said Nathaniel. 

This year, even though the fair mandated masks in all indoor spaces, submitted employees to regular COVID-19 tests, and required all visitors to self-screen for symptoms before attending, Nathaniel said the fair felt relatively normal. “We’re back to a week long,” he said. “It feels good to be here all day long.”

“This is what it's all about,” agreed Big Fresno Fair Deputy Manager Lauri King. “Last year, it was a whole host of things, but it definitely wasn’t normal.”

Credit Kerry Klein / KVPR
As their exhibit time approaches, students gather their sheep near the entrance to the show rings.

Kig says many fairs shut down altogether last year, but the Big Fresno Fair worked with the county to keep the livestock events going. They were shorter—only one animal could show at a time, and only for one day—and some schools dropped out for the year. But for those schools that still participated, the events kept the kids working toward a goal. 

“There is nothing that can teach you more responsibility than caring for an animal,” said King, who at one point could be seen corralling a goat that belonged to one of her three children who were also competing that day. “Athletics and school work and all of those kind of things are great things, and we want our kids to strive at whatever it is they do. But when you're responsible for the life of something else, it's a whole different level.”

The week of the competition, groups of students trot their animals out in front of judges in the middle of the pavilion, and in the wings are the enclosures where the animals eat and sleep. 

Credit Kerry Klein / KVPR
Gisele Galaviz said her first year in FFA reinforced her desire to work with animals later in life.

That’s where Gisele Galaviz found her hogs, Chewy and Coco, two speckled canvases of black, pink and gray, lying snout to snout in the sawdust. “They're very attached to each other, so they lay right next to each other,” she laughed.

Galaviz is a 15-year-old sophomore at Central High School in Fresno. It’s her first year in FFA, so she had to learn how the animals would be judged. One category is market-readiness, how healthy and sturdy they look, and the ratio of fat to muscle on their bones. “They want the front and back views, as well as the side views, going back and forth,” she said. “And for showmanship, they like to see the way you present yourself while walking the pig.”

Most of these animals will be sold for meat or dairy at the final auction. The winners fetch the highest price. Galaviz knows all this, but she still wonders if it’ll be hard to say goodbye to Chewy and Coco. “I don’t know, it might be,” she said. “I've heard people cry, so I'm a little scared.”

These livestock-rearing programs aren’t just about the animals. Some chapters also offer classes in leadership, public speaking and plant science, as well as clubs for specialized skills like welding and wood-working.

Credit Kerry Klein / KVPR
Laton High School senior Joseph Ortega celebrates that his hog, Sarah Star, was deemed market-ready.

Then there are the life skills. Joseph Ortega is a senior at Laton High School, and the 17-year-old’s first year in FFA has been challenging. He couldn’t afford a hog at first, but his chapter rallied and helped him pay for it. Then he was told he had to step up after missing a few meetings. “It was a little difficult,” he acknowledged. “I'm just glad they gave me this chance to just show, cause it's my first time and I feel good about it.”

He says he enjoyed spending these last few months with his hog, whom he named Sarah Star. “Look at where I’m at, I'm making it, I’m doing what I have to do, I feel happy for myself,” he said. It feels good “to show my parents and my family that anything is possible and I could be something in this world.”

His school didn’t participate in the fair in 2020, but he’s so glad they did this year.

After the fair, Nathaniel and Nicholas Bonomi both received awards and cash prizes for Jack and Bear. Gisele Galaviz and Joseph Ortega left the fair with ribbons for Chewy, Coco and Sarah Star.

Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.
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