EAST COUNTY — The 97th edition of the Manatee County Fair will be known, more than ever, for the effort that went into making it happen — from organizers to participants.
When more than 170,000 people (Fair Manager Dan West hopes) walk the 32-acre fairgrounds, Jan. 17 through Jan. 27, in Palmetto, they will see a revamped arena, filled with sand from nine dump trucks, to meet the increased demand for dairy and swine projects in the Youth Livestock Show.
More than 100 volunteers transformed the fair to accommodate nearly 50 rides, musical acts, food vendors, arts-and-crafts exhibits and livestock shows. The grounds are decorated with movie posters and life-size character cutouts to show this year’s theme, “Going Hollywood.”
Characters dressed as Barney Fife and John Wayne will stroll around, probably walking on the Hollywood Walk of Fame replica, which organizers custom built.
And, then, there’s the extra handwritten letters, networking, showmanship practice and out-of-pocket money that come from 4-H youth selling steer in the Youth Livestock Show. Feed prices have jumped nearly $3 a bag, forcing participants to get creative to earn a profit.
Susan Graham, a Lakewood Ranch High School agriculture teacher who heads the school’s agriculture-directed studies program, says stakes rise and tension tightens as her students and fair exhibitors tend to their animals.
“These feed prices are kind of scary,” said Graham, a former Future Farmer of America (FFA) who showed for eight years when she was raised on a dairy farm near the upper Manatee River. “You have to be on top of your game more than ever. How much you practice will show. The exhibitor and the steer just can’t walk into the arena and turn it on.”
For Sierra Langston, a Lakewood Ranch senior participating in her third show at the fair, it all starts with fattening her steer, or at least making it meatier.
Langston bought her steer, now a 16-month-old named Bayou, in August, with the help of her parents. He needed to gain 300 pounds — or two pounds a day — by his January weigh-in date.
Twice a day, Langston feeds Bayou at Lakewood Ranch High’s FFA barn off Lakewood Ranch Boulevard, where she keeps her steer.
The barn also holds five pigs, Holstein heifers (dairy cows), rabbits and plants — all of which will be shown at the fair.
Langston cleans and waters Bayou’s stall every day and bathes him twice a week.
Exhibitors also learn how to medicate, vaccinate and de-worm their steer.
It all adds up to a $2,500 investment, much of which Langston pays using the profits she earned selling steer last year, leaving her pining to sell Bayou for $3 to $4 a pound, just to break even. Last year, she sold her steer to Tarpon Point Grill for $4 a pound.
She practices her strut, a faster, more aggressive walk, to make Bayou look more muscular.
Langston has written letters — fitted with a picture of Bayou, promoting his masculinity — to former buyers and friends.
“It’s like running a business,” Langston said. “If I did my networking and can answer buyer questions, Bayou will sell. It will be kind of hard watching him go. But it’s not like giving your dog away. You buy them knowing what’s going to happen in the end.”
Contact Josh Siegel at [email protected].
IF YOU GO
MANATEE COUNTY FAIR
When: Jan. 17 to Jan. 27; 5 to 10 p.m. Jan. 17, 22, 24 and 25; noon to 10 p.m. Jan. 18 through 21, 23 and 26; noon to 7 p.m. Jan. 27
What: Fair festivities include: ROCK-IT the ROBOT, kids pedal tractor pulls, sea lion splash, Tall Tex, Barney of Mayberry, banana derby, rides, food, arts-and-crafts exhibits, the Youth Livestock Show, a barbecue cook-off, cheerleading competition and Fair Queen pageant
Cost: $8 for adults 13 years old and up; $7 for seniors 55 years old and up; $5 for kids 6 to 12 years old; Free admission for kids 5 years old and younger; $5 for military
Special pricing days: “Opening Day,” Jan. 17 — Adults $4 and children $2; Auto Way Ford “Kid’s Day at the Fair” Jan. 18 — All students get in free noon to 3 p.m.; “Two Dollar Tuesday,” Jan. 22 — $2 per person; “Senior’s Day,” Jan. 23 — $5 for seniors