Confession: I have a tartan past.
I was once the Illinois Shorthorn Lassie Queen. I wore a plaid kilt and black boots. It's true. Photographic evidence exists, but I will not provide it. I tried valiantly to become the National Shorthorn Lassie Queen. It was all just about as glamorous as you might imagine: show rings, essays, scrapbooks, ribbons, interviews and more. In truth, it was an early form of agricultural advocacy, even though we didn't call it that back then.
The interview process went well, up until I heard my friend and fellow competitor from Indiana, Anne Jordan, talking about MARC data. I knew not what she was speaking of. Carcass data? From bulls? Tracking Shorthorn genetics? In Nebraska? I paid attention to what she said about the Meat Animal Research Center info but I remember well the moment of realization: I don't understand what happens when our animals leave our seedstock farm to produce an animal that will produce a steak. And that's a problem.
In the end, Annie became the National Queen and I became the Alternate National Queen, and we toured the country together (and Canada!) and had a grand time handing out ribbons and banners and in general, just having a grand time. It was as it should've been because while I could talk a good EPD game and knew every Shorthorn bloodline in the country, I didn't know squat about meat.
Also, there was that one interview question about NAFTA, to which my answer must have resembled that of the nonsensical Miss America contestant from a few years back.
All of this came flooding back as I read a social media post this spring. Andy Vance works with our sister publication, Feedstuffs, and he'd spent the day judging the Ohio FFA interview contest. He took note while interviewing young people who were passionate and engaged about showing cattle. They displayed phenomenal work ethic and could share any manner of details about the work they do to grow hair and work with their show cattle.
His concern: in 10 years of interviewing kids like this, little has changed.
"Kids today are every bit as passionate and articulate about growing hair as they were when I first started in radio more than a decade ago…and they are still every bit as ignorant about the meat under that hair as they ever were," Vance shares.
His observation is not a broad-brush-stroked indictment. We all know FFA and 4-H members who are engaged and articulate and knowledgeable about the beef industry, the carcasses they produce, and the consumer issues that surround a steak.
But I wonder: how many don't look beyond raising a show animal? Beyond hair and competition? Do they understand the economics of commercial beef production? Do they understand what the average consumer thinks about meat production?
Illinois 4-H members haven't been required to keep production records on their livestock projects since the mid-1980s. I grew up in Edwards County, and we used to march our production records down to the show ring, a day or so before the show. Today, Edwards is among the few Illinois counties that do require livestock production records.
Across the country in California, rancher Celeste Settrini confirms that the show and commercial worlds are two separate places, as well: "I don't really know how many kids have a grasp on what we as commercial breeders deal with. So many of the 'show parents' don't have a grasp, that I doubt the kids do either."
If there is indeed a knowledge gap - if young people exhibiting livestock don't have an understanding of the commercial production of their specie - the question becomes, who is responsible for teaching them? The parent? The club? The county? The state 4-H or FFA program?
Or is that even the point of exhibiting an animal? Maybe the project is just for teaching them to show.
For my money, Wisconsin may have the best program yet. Prior to their county show and sale, any youth member (4-H, FFA and other organizations) who exhibits livestock at the county fair has to accumulate a certain number of points throughout the year by attending educational seminars. Bernie O'Rourke, Wisconsin 4-H livestock specialist, says the program was conceived in the '70s and is administered by individual counties, not the state, but she says the vast majority of livestock-producing counties have a similar points system. The seminars vary in topic from meats judging to nutrition to how to interact with the non-ag public about agriculture.
"I think it's been good," O'Rourke says. "That's the purpose: to require kids to learn more about their animal project, and to give them skills to learn about the science of animals. And every county can put their own twist on it."
I like that they've been able to connect show kids to commercial production, while still encouraging competition. "Competition is important for learning," O'Rourke adds. "Our youth are going to be competing for jobs and more, for their whole lives. It's valuable to learn what to do when you don't succeed – how you re-evaluate what you did and what your goals are."