Despite social distancing adjustments, members of the Kenai Peninsula District 4-H clubs and the community showed up at this year’s Junior Market Livestock Auction.
Instead of taking place at the Ninilchik Fairgrounds during the annual Kenai Peninsula Fair, which was canceled this year due to ongoing concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic, 4-H’ers brought their steer, pigs, sheep, turkeys, rabbits and goat to the Soldotna Rodeo Grounds on Saturday.
On one side of a fence, the animals and their handlers were set up underneath the bleachers that face the rodeo grounds. On the other side was a parking lot with about two dozen vehicles, where the bidders sat in their truck beds or in camp chairs next to their cars, keeping a safe distance from the youth and the other guests.
For most of the 24 youth who raised livestock for the auction, this year wasn’t their first rodeo. Three of them graduated high school this spring and were selling an animal with 4-H for the last time: Colton Rankin, Elora Reichert and Destiny Martin. On display ahead of the auction was Outlaw, a 211-pound swine raised by Martin. Martin said she was happy to have the drive-in style work, rather than doing it online as they had originally planned.
“At least they (the bidders) get to actually see the animals and actually be here to bid,” Martin said. “Instead of doing it online, which gives us nothing to do.”
Reichert said that having the auction take place at the Soldotna Rodeo Grounds rather than in Ninilchik could be something they continue going forward, as the venue change was received positively by many of the attendees.
“This is a perfect stepping stone,” Reichert said. “Even though we didn’t want it to go this way, this is a perfect stepping stone to become our own, self-sustained program and not have to depend on anybody for a place to show.”
Jewel Meadow was sitting with her pen of Grand Champion rabbits, a set of three Californian Whites. Meadow had been raising horses until this year, and managed to win Best in Show with her first attempt at raising rabbits.
JaLeen Gattenby, whose goat, Flapjack, was the only one of his kind at the auction this year, said that despite all of the different challenges of participating in 4-H during a pandemic, for her the most difficult part of the process was just getting the goat.
“We couldn’t find anybody who had a goat, and when we did the closest person we could find was in Fairbanks,” Gattenby said. Raising goats like Flapjack is also challenging, Gattenby said, because of how stubborn they can be when it comes time to show them.
Every year one animal is chosen as the community service animal, and the profits from its sale go to any charity that the handler chooses. This year the community service animal was a 28-pound Blue Ribbon turkey raised by Addy Pedersen of Homer. Pedersen chose Haven House as the recipient of the donation. Haven House is a nonprofit in Homer that provides shelter and other services to victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.
Returning as auctioneer and judge for the second year in a row was Rayne Reynolds of Palmer, who said he was glad to be doing his first live auction since the pandemic hit the state.
“I want to give a special thank-you to the community down here on the peninsula,” Reynolds said before auctioning off the last animal of the day. “You guys are amazing, absolutely amazing.”
Helping Reynolds out in the parking lot were a few volunteers on horseback, who went around spotting the bids and letting him know who the winners were.
One of the volunteer spotters was Abby Ala, a longtime resident of the peninsula and former member of the local 4-H program — back before there even was a fair that could be canceled by a virus.
“I probably, in this area, have been in 4-H longer than anybody else,” Ala said. “When I was a child we didn’t even have the fair. I raised an animal, but we just butchered it and ate it.”
Joanne Martin, whose late husband, Carroll, helped start the Kenai Peninsula Fair and was a longtime supporter of the local 4-H program, attended Saturday’s auction and said she was proud of the way the kids handled the adjustments.
“Under the circumstances, they did excellent,” Martin said. “All the kids looked great in their white, black and green, and I just had a thrilling time.”
Unfortunately, not everyone handled the adjustments perfectly. One of the steer that was up for auction got a little rattled by the unfamiliar environment and briefly got loose on the other side of the bleachers, out of sight of the main event. Luckily, no one was hurt in getting a handle on the steer, aside from some light rope burn.
Reichert, who was one of the first to chase the steer down, said after the auction that cows get spooked easily when things around them change quickly. Normally, the animals are kept at the fairgrounds four days ahead of time so they can adjust to their new surroundings, but that wasn’t the case this year.
“I’ve had some of the biggest sweethearts and even I’ve had to do this before,” Reichert said. “It just happens because they need that time and that distance to just get used to it and then step their toes in the water. And we’ve all dealt with them, so we know how to not get hurt around them, but at the same time, we had to catch that thing.”
Reichert added that the fact the steer got loose inside a fenced-in rodeo grounds also made it a lot easier to chase down.
Normally, after every animal is sold, bidders have the option to “add-on” smaller amounts on top of the sale price as a way of donating directly to the kids who raised the livestock. This year anyone can make an add-on by visiting kp4h.com.