Ashlyn Meyers and Victoria Staszak, two eighth graders at Carlos E. Haile Middle School, were working with their dairy cow, Josie.
They washed, brushed and fed her. They love spending quality time with Josie while getting her ready to show at the Manatee County Fair.
Josie is one of 94 cows Cameron Dakin Dairy has provided to various Future Farmers of America and 4-H chapters to show at the Manatee County Fair, which runs Jan. 12-22.
Meyers said it means a lot to her that Cameron Dakin Dairy is leasing Josie to Haile Middle so she and Staszak could show an animal for the first time at the fair.
“It was nice of them to let us borrow their cow and trust us,” Meyers said. “I’m glad we were able to do it.”
Every year, local farms such as Cameron Dakin Dairy and Bunyak Club Calves, provide animals to students, who then learn from the experience.
Sondra Dakin, who operates Cameron Dakin Dairy with her husband, Cameron Dakin, said seeing students show their cows at the fair warms her heart.
“I just love seeing the kids and the love they have for the animals," Sondra Dakin said. "I love to see how they’re interested in the agricultural industry. Their eyes open to so much. There’s so many directions you can go in agriculture they’re not aware of, so I love being able to open them up to these opportunities.”
Cameron Dakin said his farm will provide cows to FFA and 4-H programs as long as it can.
“I see cows every day, and they’re in their working clothes. They might not be washed and brushed and groomed, so you don’t appreciate the quality of who they are,” he said. “We don’t appreciate them as much as we should, but when you get to the show and you see them cleaned and groomed, it’s awesome.”
The Dakins hope providing animals for students to show at the fair will inspire them to pursue a career in agriculture.
“Not everyone wants to be a doctor or whatever,” Cameron Dakin said. “People have different interests in life, and if we can spark that interest in some part of agriculture, then I’m glad to do it.”
Temple Bunyak, whose family owns Bunyak Club Calves, said her farm leases or sells between 12 and 15 animals to students each year.
"We've just enjoyed giving back to the community, helping the kids and seeing them learn the importance of agriculture through this," Bunyak said. "It's important because agriculture in Manatee County has diminished some because of the growth and population here. Having students get involved with agriculture and as the public goes to the fair and have that experience with agriculture, it helps connect people a little bit more to the roots of the county."
Bunyak said her family is available to answer any questions students might have regarding the animal's health, and they help with weighing the animals to ensure their weight is on track.
"It's exciting to watch the kids, to see them caring for the animal and putting a lot of effort into it," she said. "To not only see the development and progress the cattle make but the development and learning progress the students make as well is the most rewarding."
Haiden Laraway, a Braden River High School junior, is grateful Bunyak Club Calves has given her Velvet and Tuxedo, two cows to show at the fair.
“I know there’s a limited amount, and I feel grateful,” Laraway said.
Lourdes Capote-Dishaw, a Braden River High junior, said the farms' generosity means more students can be involved.
Capote-Dishaw puts the money she earns from selling a steer at the fair toward her college fund. Students also are able to earn scholarships from businesses like Tractor Supply for their participation in FFA.
Jessica Jones, the FFA advisor at Haile Middle, said the school leases on average four heifers from Cameron Dakin Dairy each year.
She said besides leasing the dairy cows to students for free, the farm also provides feed.
“That’s super crucial,” Jones said. “They don’t have to do that for us, especially after the year we’ve had with a hurricane and everything. We’re pretty grateful.”
Jones said local farms supporting school agricultural programs and vice versa is crucial. She said it also means that the county's agricultural history is being preserved.
"Agriculture is still in the forefront of people’s minds,” Jones said. “We’d be totally lost if we didn’t have those businesses and those community members to fulfill needs other than just the animal.”
Sondra Dakin said one of the most difficult parts for students after showing at the fair is having to say goodbye to the cows they’ve loved like pets for months.
“There are a lot of tears when we’re loading them up at the fair to take them back to the farm,” Sondra Dakin said. “(Students) want to come out and see their Betsy, or whatever they’ve named it.”
Liz Ramos covers education and community for East County. Before moving to Florida, Liz was an education reporter for the Lynchburg News & Advance in Virginia for two years after graduating from the Missouri School of Journalism.