Growing future agriculturalists
The Southeastern Youth Fair, the oldest all-youth fair in the country without a midway and the largest all-youth fair in Florida, is a showcase for our area’s budding farmers and ranchers.
Clay Peebles, 10, a member of the Cracker Country 4-H, tries to lead his steer, Charlie, as they practice for Steer Showmanship at his family’s farm in the Ocala National Forest on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023. Clay will be showing Charlie in Steer Showmanship during the Southeastern Youth Fair on Monday, Feb. 27, 2023. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2022.
Within minutes of arriving at the Peebles property in northeast Marion County, you quickly learn that generations of this farming family have a deep love for each other, the land on which they live and the agricultural aspects of their lives.
In the center of the sprawling spread is the home of Meghan and Josh Peebles and their children Conner, 14; Clay, 10; and Hannah, 4. On either side of them are Josh’ parents and grandparents. Other family members live nearby.
The Peebles have long raised cows and young Clay is approaching his second year of showing a steer at the Southeastern Youth Fair (SEYF), which will run from Feb. 23 to March 4 at the Southeastern Livestock Pavilion in Ocala. Conner has been a past participant but is sitting out a year. Hannah will be able to participate in the 2024 fair, after she turns 5.
The SEYF is the oldest all-youth fair in the country that continues to operate without a midway. All of the exhibitors must be registered with a local 4-H club or the National FFA Organization. This year’s theme is “Let The Good Times Grow.”
Sara LeFils, executive director of the SEYF, said it also is the largest all-youth fair event in the state of Florida. The Steer Show, which was the foundation of the SEYF, began in 1941. The fair in its current configuration started in 1978. That was the year that saw the start of the beef heifer, dog obedience, dairy and meat goat, garden, home arts, horse, kitchen, poultry, rabbit and swine show categories. Dog agility was added in 2004.
“I believe the Southeastern Youth Fair to be one of the most rewarding and inspiring events observed in our community. Watching hundreds of our local youth showcase their hard work and seeing our community leaders and businesses support them in such a tremendous way gives me great encouragement for our future,” said LeFils.
The SEYF operates with one paid employee and more than 200 volunteers, whose time is valued at over $50,000 and who provide almost 4,000 hours of service each year.
This year’s fair is dedicated to one of those volunteers, local CPA Terri Kane.
“Terri has been an integral part of the SEYF community for decades,’’ said LeFils. “She served as the treasurer on the executive board from 1998 to 2014. She has devoted an endless amount of volunteer hours over numerous years at the SEYF. She supported the fair financially as a sponsor, an animal buyer and donated her accounting services for several years. Her influence is immeasurable and her devotion to serve the youth in this community is admirable. Terri’s passion for and commitment to the fair will always be treasured and will continue to inspire future generations to come. It is an honor to dedicate the 2023 Southeastern Youth Fair to her.”
The guiding principles of the SEYF are to maintain a production show; foster a unique experience for a child to act as a producer, to market their animal from beginning to end; protect that project as much as possible for the buyer’s sake with a high-quality product, for the child’s sake in protecting their initial investment and with a goal for the highest possible return for the child; and create educational experiences for Marion County youth.
The mission is to recognize youth through the fair as a showcase for competition, exhibition, enhanced educational opportunities and the promotion of self-esteem and personal growth and development, while educating residents about the importance of agriculture and related industries in the local area.
“The Southeastern Youth Fair has a tremendous impact on youth development and is necessary in growing future agriculturalists,” said SEYF President Molly Rowe. “It’s a treasured tradition in our county that brings our community together and honors our roots in agriculture.”
BY THE NUMBERS
In regard to the agriculture industry in the region, here are some statistics from Patricia “Lynn” Nobles, director, UF/IFAS Extension, Marion County:
• Marion County is the Horse Capital of The World, with more horses than any county worldwide. However, we are also ranked 10th in the state for beef cattle, 1st in the state for sheep and goat numbers and have some prominent row crop farms dealing in peanuts, watermelon and seasonal veggies, to name a few.
• In Marion County, roughly 22% of our workforce is involved in agriculture in some capacity.
• We have reached a record high number of youth involved in 4-H, at over 800, making Marion County one of the leading counties statewide for youth enrollment in 4-H. Many of these youth are building life skills and mastering concepts through agriculture clubs and projects.
• Less than 1% of all Americans are directly involved in the production of food and fiber, with the average age of today’s American farmer approaching 60. Encouraging agriculture amongst our youth is paramount for the future security of our food source.
• The Marion County Board of County Commissioners proclaimed the Week of Feb. 13-17 as Food Check-Out Week, recognizing that Florida farmers and ranchers are unmatched in their ability to consistently produce an abundance of safe, nutritious and affordable food.
• The average American household spends an average of 10.3% of their disposable income on food. This is the lowest of any country.
LeFils provided this data from last year’s youth fair:
• 41 exhibitors sold their goats for a total of $35,301
• 63 exhibitors sold their lambs for a total of $68,590.25
• 134 exhibitors sold their steers for a total of $792,825.87
• 195 exhibitors sold their hogs for a total of $496,468.80
“How’s that for an investment in our youth!” she said with pride.
LeFils added that many of the participants also engage in community outreaches.
“We broke records with prices and our sales last year. Some of our 4-H clubs raised funds for Kimberly’s Cottage, Brian’s All-Stars, Hillcrest School and a scholarship fund for Landon Yerk (a former exhibitor who was killed in a 2020 car accident). There is so much good news about our fair,” she said.
For the Peebles family, their involvement in the SEYF and 4-H has been consistent for a number of years. Josh said his brother and sister were exhibitors in the fair but he was too busy when he was younger. He has been very involved, however, through the participation of his sons. Meghan has been a co-leader of the Cracker Country 4-H Club for three years and this year became the leader.
For Clay, taking care of his steer Charlie means the boy has to be diligent in not only making sure the animal has food and water, he also must keep a record book of those feedings and other data and train the animal for the show ring.
“He usually comes down here and walks him every day, and he has to feed him, provide hay for him and spend time with him,” said Josh. “They have to keep a log of their feed, how much per day they eat; it’s quite a bit, including how much it costs. They have to figure depreciation. Obviously, at his age, there’s a lot we have to help him with.”
“You learn that steers are not something to play around with. They can be very dangerous, and they can sense your fear. So, you try to not be afraid around them,” Clay stated. “That’s the cool thing about them. You can learn a lot of stuff.”
Clay’s steer last year was one of only four that were ranked as choice-plus, which is one category in grading beef.
“His was one of only four that were considered choice-plus and above out of 140-something steers,” said Josh. “You have prime, which is your best, and there was only one prime I think in the entire state. And it came from Marion County, from the Baldwin Angus Ranch. Clay had a very good steer last year.”
Part of participating in the SEYF means the exhibitors and livestock part ways when the animals are sold to the highest bidder. Sometimes, that means tears and breakdowns on the parts of the youngsters.
Josh said because they are a farming family, Clay understands that part of it.
“That’s what we do. We raise steers every year and we process our own, so he’s used to it. That’s part of the project. Obviously, you get attached to them, but he knows what it’s about,” he said.
As for whether he wants to be a farmer or cattleman when he grows up, Clay said, “Yes’m, a little of both. I like them both pretty much the same.”
The Marion County Farm Bureau sponsors a program called Ag Ventures during each year’s SEYF. The outreach will bring about 900 second graders, from 12 different schools around Marion County, to the livestock pavilion on March 1 and 2.
According to Julie Wall, Federation Coordinator for the Marion County Farm Bureau, the youngsters will get a firsthand look at 12 of Florida’s major agricultural commodities.
“During Ag Ventures, students will be planting seeds and learning about being good stewards of the land, playing marshmallow bingo while learning about beef cattle, meeting baby chicks while learning about poultry, petting a pony during their equine visit, sampling fresh citrus and learning about forestry by-products and the importance of bees to our food system. The students will also be introduced to blueberries, goats and rabbits, all by volunteers from within each industry,” Wall said.
The 2023 Ag Ventures program has been organized and funded by the Marion County Farm Bureau and is a cooperative effort between the bureau, Marion County Public Schools, the Southeastern Youth Fair and the local agriculture industry, Wall noted.
AG DASH AND MORE
The Ag Dash 5K will begin at 8 a.m. on Feb. 25 at the livestock pavilion and all proceeds will benefit the SEYF. The race will feature mounted cowhands at the start/finish line. The first 200 finishers will receive a medal. To sign up, go to agdash5k.itsyourrace.com/event.aspx?id=13065
The full schedule of SEFY events lists activities such as numerous animal shows, dinners, a barbecue contest, skill-a-thons, tractor driving, a speech contest and exhibits such as horticulture/gardening. The SEYF is free to attend and spectators are welcome.
The fair will have approximately 150 market steers, 250 market swine, 70 market lambs and 50 market goats, which will be sold throughout the week. Online bidding will be available and information about how to register will be posted on the SEYF website the week prior to the fair.
The Southeastern Livestock Pavilion is located at 2232 NE Jacksonville Road, Ocala. For more information, go to seyfair.com