Myakka City teen will be crowned Manatee Cattlemen Sweetheart at Ranch Rodeo.
It wasn't their favorite horse or a prized bull that drew the admiration of a couple of old ranchers at the Big Red Cattle Company in Myakka City.
This day was all about 18-year-old Casey Wingate, who was wearing a crown and a leather sash that read, "Manatee Cattlemen Sweetheart."
Wingate, whose parents Gene and Tamara own Wingate Creek Farms in Myakka City, is about to embark on a busy year of representing the Manatee Cattlemen's Association and the beef industry.
What makes Wingate perfect for the job?
"She was county born, bred and raised," said Myakka City's Richard Kersey, 77 and a lifetime director of the Cattlemen's Association.
"Born and bred," echoed Myakka City's Cully Rowell, 76 and the current director of the Cattlemen's Association. "It's her background. She's always been an ag girl."
On Saturday, Feb. 17 at the Manatee County Fairgrounds, Wingate will officially be crowned the Manatee Sweetheart at the 10th annual Manatee Cattlemen's Association Ranch Rodeo. The event begins at noon.
"Growing up, I always wanted to be a Sweetheart," Wingate said. "They were my role models. I wanted to be someone other people would look up to."
One of her role models was Kelly Davis Strausbaugh, who was the Manatee Sweetheart in 2010. Davis Strausbaugh explained a Sweetheart has to be able to talk about cattle industry and its environmental impact.
Wingate has to talk about how animals are treated on Manatee ranches and about the safety involved in beef production. She has to be able to address animal rights activists and talk about nutrition.
"We make sure we are transparent," she said of the Manatee Cattlemen's Association.
A lifetime on a ranch gives Wingate, who now is an agricultural studies student at Warner University in Lake Wales after being homeschooled, confidence she can handle the task.
"I was a Clover Bud when I was 6," Wingate said of participating in 4H. "I'm not much of a city person. Lots of people and noise, that's not for me."
She loved waking up on the ranch, although she admits "the mornings are a little rough." Over the years she had success showing cattle, swine and rabbits.
Eventually, she would like to be a county 4H Extension agent. She loves working with budding ranchers.
"I see little girls walking steers and crying," she said of the competitions and the eventually auction that follows. "I feel for them. I am an emotional person."
Kersey and Rowell said they hope Wingate continues to make them proud right here in Manatee County. Her older sister, 23-year-old Courtney Wingate, moved to Texas. She also has a younger brother, Clay, who loves the ranch lifestyle as well.
"I plan on staying in Florida," Wingate said.
For now, though, Wingate is a bit nervous heading into the Ranch Rodeo.
"Most of my friends are excited for me," she said. "The others are asking me, 'Are you going in front of 600 people to talk?"
Judged on the attendance last year, it will be more like 1,000 people.
"The rodeo is one of our big fundraisers," Davis Strausbaugh said. "It helps us to keep the association thriving. And this year we hope to have 15 teams (made up of four cowboys and one cowgirl). This is a quality event."
"(Being the Sweetheart) is going to improve my quick-thinking skills," Wingate said. "It will help me learn to network."
In June, Wingate will compete for the title of State Sweetheart for the beef industry.
"(The Manatee Cattlemen's Association) has had five state Sweethearts and they all are from Myakka City," Rowell said. "Our girls are raised on a horse."