For the hundreds of people gathered in the pavilion at the Washington County Fair, the weekend livestock auction was the main event.
“What happens on the hill makes the fair,” said Chad McGowan, director and auctioneer at the annual event. “It’s the biggest thing every year.”
This year marks the 50th Washington County Livestock Market Auction. For half a century, youth enrolled in local 4-H and Future Farmers of America programs wrap up the end of a long week, preparing and showing their animals in this time-honored tradition.
“It’s the atmosphere,” McGowan said. “These kids look forward to this all year long. They get to see their family and friends – even though they compete against each other. Everyone has a good time.”
McGowan, 34, has been involved in the auction since he was 8 years old.
Now, as a volunteer, he said he has been able to watch the auction grow to new heights.
“In the last five years, the way things have increased has just been unbelievable,” McGowan said. “These kids are very fortunate. I hope they appreciate just what these local businesses, volunteers and buyers are doing for them.”
Part of the growth the auction enjoyed in the past few years is attributed to the impact of the local energy boom, particularly natural gas drilling.
Matt Pitzarella, director of communications for Range Resources, said the drilling company spent $1 million purchasing livestock at county fairs since 2007. It also gave out $50,000 in FFA scholarships every year, a quarter of which stay in Washington County.
“Our corporate success is directly tied to the health and vibrancy of our communities,” Pitzarella said. “Today is the Super Bowl for these kids, and we’re proud to be a part of the ride.”
The young competitors receive the money from the corporate bidders, and the animals are almost always donated back to charity.
Jeanine Miles, chairman of the livestock auction, said, although corporate sponsors have helped the event grow in its 50th year, it is the residents who act as volunteers and local bidders that are the real backbone of the event.
“It takes a lot to do this,” Miles said. “We appreciate the big industry, but we also really appreciate the little guy, because the kids really benefit from their hard work.”
Lena Bioni, 18, of Claysville, said she liked her time in 4-H and FFA clubs so much she plans on making a career out of it.
She recently deferred her freshman studies for one year so she could act as FFA state treasurer.
A participant in the auction since age 8, Bioni said the experience helped mold her as a farmer.
“My first year, I lost horribly,” Bioni said. “I was last place in my class.
But this year, I got first place.
“My family never knew anything about showing livestock. But as I got older, I made friends with the older kids that knew more. Together, the show gets more competitive. Everyone is learning from each other.”
Bioni has learned enough to be elected among a field of 17 all-star FFA candidates to the statewide post. And her appreciation for the field of animal husbandry grew enough that she will further her education at Penn State University’s College of Agricultural Studies next year.
“With all of the (genetically modified organisms) out there, I want to continue this way of life,” Bioni said. “The thought of growing a pig in a petri dish … There’s a huge difference between a brood cow and raising an actual club calf.”
Although she wants to do this professionally some day, the thought of the auction still has the power to tug at her heartstrings.
“It’s always emotional knowing your animal is going to slaughter,” Bioni said. “It’s bittersweet. But you learn to deal with it as you get older, knowing you can start to get ready for next year.”