SEBRING - For the past six months, Kasey Starling had become a surrogate mother to Ella, making sure Ella was healthy, fed and nurtured.
But Thursday would mark the end of their half-year relationship; within an hour, Ella - a 6-month-old hog - would soon belong to someone else, leaving Kasey with only fond memories and money for college.
Kasey was one of about 310 4-H and Future Farmers of America (FFA) eighth- to 12th-grade Highlands County students who took place in the 2014 Highlands County Fair Junior Livestock Sale auction.
Presented by the Highlands County Fair Association & Junior Livestock Committee, the annual judging-auction is an annual learning experience in responsibility and economics for students involved in agriculture programs. Held from 6:30 to 10 p.m. in the Livestock Arena, about 60 buyers from Highlands and surrounding counties put bids on the students' animals, in most cases, to reward the students for their efforts and possibly making a little investment themselves.
Decked out in jeans, boots and her denim FFA jacket as she stood in the spectator bleachers with friends and family, Kasey said she would save whatever money her hog brought for veterinary studies at the University of Florida. A hog she entered in 2012 netted her about $1,600.
"It's really not about the money; I enjoy the showing part of it more," said Kasey, 16, a junior FFA member at Avon Park High School. "I'm nervous at the beginning, but once you're out there, it's no big deal."
What is a big deal for the students involved in the auction, said Chad McWaters, vice-chairman of the fair's Junior Livestock Committee, is for the teens to be rewarded for the time they put into raising and caring for their animals. This year, he said about 30 steers, 30 heifers and 100 hogs were entered for judging and sale. Of the livestock brought to bids, buyers could keep, resale or have their purchase slaughtered by a facility for custom kill, cut and wrap.
For resale, steers were sold based on weight and market value of $1.20 per pound and sent to Nettles Beef Processing Inc., Lake City. Commercial heifers went for $1,050 per head; and hogs were sold for 55 cents a pound and sent to Lake City.
For those who opted to move their merchandise to the freezer, Nettles offered slaughtering and delivery service for steers and hogs; heifers are kept as breeding animals.
"The kids put time and effort into this and hopefully they make enough money in the end, which makes this like a little business venture. It helps them learn life principles," said McWaters, in his fourth year on the Livestock Committee.
Prior to the auction, each student brought his animal in front of three judges who rated each on its physical structure and attributes. Of the livestock judged, Amy Brumfield, Sebring High School FFA, won Grand Champion Steer; Emily Little, Sebring high FFA, won Grand Champion Commercial Heifer; and Eli Gullett, Avon Park FFA, won Grand Champion Hog.
All of the judging and showing is in essence done to woo the buyers, who are registered free for the auction but expected to make bids. This year, heifers and steers were averaging $2.50 per pound.
The auction took place in front of a packed arena of about 150 spectators and 150 buyers and their families. From a table on the dirt arena, auctioneer Brian Trimble of Okeechobee, who has been an auctioneer for about 30 years, rhythmically rambled numbers and scouted out bids flashed from the buyers. About 15 yards to his right, Julie Machia, mother of Sebring FFA member Lainie Machia, watched as her daughter left the ring.
"Doing this keeps her active in school and you have to have good grades to do this. It also helps them with money college-wise," she said.
Prior to the auction, the annual Buyers' Dinner was held in the hospitality hall adjacent to the auction arena. There, buyers and their families - some from as far as Okeechobee, Hendry and Glades counties - ate barbecue and discussed the trade.
Ned Hancock, an east Hardee County 78-head cattle owner and Avon Park citrus grower, said he mostly bid on heifers and kept them. He said he had attended the auction for about 15 years mostly to "reward the young people" for their hard work and perseverance in raising livestock.
"You see the kids that worked the hardest and try to help them. You can add on to the pricing too, that also helps," he said.
McWaters said Friday the Junior Livestock Committee members were still tabulating final figures on total pounds sold and final dollar figures for the auction and they wouldn't be available until sometime next week.
According to livestock show and sale, an exhibitor may sell two animals in the junior livestock auction, providing one animal is a commercial heifer and the other is a market steer or hog. All market animals must go through the sale ring and to slaughter.
Any exhibitor that "No Sales" their commercial heifer was charged not over than 5 percent livestock fee for all animals in their department and no less than $50. "No sale" meant the exhibitor said at final weigh-in that they would not sell the animal.