The smell hits you even before you walk into the little red barn alongside Interstate 5 in Fife: A dozen pigs and five steers make a heck of a lot of manure.
But for the teenagers from Fife High School’s Future Farmers of America group, it’s all part of a day’s schoolwork – and part of the excitement of the Washington State Spring Fair.
For fair visitors, the livestock is just one part of the package of rides, shows and performers. But for the FFA kids, it means public judging, school credit, career skills and quite possibly a hefty paycheck as the reward for nine months of shoveling poop.
“It’s hard work, what we’re doing,” says senior Dennis Grelis, who raised lambs for the fair and served as district officer for the FFA (Future Farmers of America). “But it’s fun.”
Like the better-known 4-H program, FFA supports kids who want to learn agricultural skills. But it runs through high schools as a for-credit program, also teaching public speaking and business skills in addition to agricultural knowledge. Of the nine FFA districts in the state, Fife is one of the oldest and largest, founded in 1930.
Grelis, who transferred from the Tacoma district precisely for the FFA program, is one of 28 Fife students raising animals for the Spring Fair. Others support the program or learn skills like growing plants in greenhouses.
It’s a long process: Students, supported by the FFA adviser (currently science teacher Dennis Burtchett), pick out lambs or piglets in fall, calves in early August. They spend several hours each week bonding with their animals and training them to heel or move on command, and sign onto a twice-daily routine for feeding, watering and shoveling out the barn.
“The worst part is when someone throws a shovel in a big pile of poop,” says Caitlin Henderson, scratching her pig, Penelope Honeyham. “It goes all over you.”
“Yeah, when you open the door first thing in the morning and smell it, your appetite totally goes,” says Grelis.
But it’s not all bad. Ashlie Bierly, a senior and cheerleader who’s doing FFA for the first time, likes hanging out with her pig, Itsy, and bonding.
“It’s kind of relaxing,” she says, as energetic pigs squeal and snort, aiming for the tray of food Henderson’s handing out.
And while it’s not exactly relaxing to spend your spring break loading animals into the fair, staying there all day caring for them, talking about them to the public and finally bringing them out for judging, there’s a huge sense of achievement as students learn what it means to be responsible for another creature.
“It’s like your own child,” says Chase Smith, who stands quietly as a young Red Angus steer lovingly butts his leg and licks his knee. “I’ve learned so much. It’s taught me a lot of responsibility.”
“One thing it teaches everyone is teamwork,” adds Grelis, who plans a career in nursing and appreciates the anatomy he’s already learned from the animals. “It also really brought me out of my shell, gave me confidence talking to people.”
Finally, after the animals are judged on good looks, good meat proportions and how well the students control them, they’re put up for sale – a big part of the Spring Fair that many people don’t know about. Regular buyers include parents, school administrative staff and local firefighters, who appreciate hand-raised, locally grown meat.
“People don’t know we have this access to meat right here at the fair,” Grelis says.
It pays off for students, with paychecks as high as $21 per pound going into their college funds.
Of course, a program like this needs the support of the school itself. Aside from advising and helping the program continue, the Fife High School staff does more than just buy meat.
“Over the years, we’ve had a few escapees from the barn, and our assistant principal has had to chase a steer down 20th Street,” says Burtchett. “Other principals have been approached to look after sick pigs.”
Escapees aside, most of the handling is the students’ responsibility – and when it’s time to hand over the animal to the butcher, it’s also a lesson in letting go.
“You get attached to them,” admits Grelis. “It’s hard for steers, where you have to load your own animal onto the truck and say your last goodbye.” He pauses, before adding: “But then you wait a couple of months and look at the check.”
The Washington State Spring Fair
When: 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday
Where: Washington State Fair Events Center (fairgrounds), 110 Ninth Ave. SW, Puyallup
Tickets: $10 adults; $8 students; free Friday for military
Spring Fair RoundUp
The Spring Fair may be the smaller cousin of the State Fair in the fall, but there’s still a lot to do in one weekend. Here’s a sampling of what’s set for this year.
Motorsport Mayhem: Colliding cars and crashing trucks rule the action, with a monster truck show (7:30 p.m. Friday) and rides (Friday and Saturday), demolition derbies (7:30 p.m. Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday) and pit parties all weekend.
Action Animals: See Alaskan racing pigs tearing round the course, DockDogs leaping into a swimming pool, and the snakes, lizards and frogs of Brad’s Reptile World all weekend long. And don’t forget all those adorable baby animals at the Fair Farm and petting enclosure.
Garden Delights: Get inspired for spring at the Northwest Living and Garden section, where a marketplace, workshops and displays will help you get growing.
Bands and more: Stage performers this year include plenty of youth, from garage bands from the Puget Sound Music for Youth, to the Honoring Cultural Diversity Celebration. Other acts include square dance band The Honky Tonk Angels and indie a cappella group The Coats.
Other entertainment includes fireworks (9 p.m. Friday and Saturday), the Mindworks interactive exhibit, and plenty of rides.
Plan your trip at thefair.com.