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Virtual livestock auction replaces yearly fair event

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The Williams sisters have put in months of labor, sweat and money into the livestock animals they looked forward to showing and selling at this year’s Healdsburg Future Farmers Country Fair auction.

The annual youth agriculture celebration, complete with community parade, fair and farm auction, was to be the reward for all their hard work — and a financial boon that would repay their investment and even turn a profit.

Gateway 4H members Ashland and Brianna Williams planned to show two steers, a lamb and a pig at this year’s event.

“I was really looking forward to showing him,” said Ashland Williams, a senior at Windsor High School, of her steer Nash.

Alas, the coronavirus reared its ugly head.

The pandemic forced cancellation of the community favorite Twilight parade in downtown Healdsburg, the multiday fair and the livestock auction in what would have been its 71st year.

The fair’s cancellation left ag students like the Williams sisters with no marketplace for their animals, a potentially stiff financial blow after sinking countless hours and thousands of dollars into raising the livestock.

It also deprived them of that culminating moment, the trip around the auction ring to show off the pride in their projects.

“I am really disappointed that I won’t be able to showcase our talents together,” Ashland Williams said in a video with her steer. “It really hurts as a senior knowing that I won’t be able to come back next year.”

But as is wont to happen in such tight-knit American towns, Healdsburg ag supporters vowed not to let the coronavirus wipe out all the hard work the Future Farmers of America and 4H kids have put in.

They turned this year’s auction into a two-day online sale of the steer, swine, sheep, rabbits and other animals the Sonoma County students have lovingly raised for months.

The virtual auction, which began Thursday morning, continues through Friday at 5 p.m., though some pre-set auto-bidding may continue beyond that time.

Instead of meeting with community members, sponsors and other potential buyers as they would normally do this time of year to drum up support, the kids recorded videos to showcase their animals and raise awareness that the auction will go on — just a little differently this year.

Grace Perkins, a 7th grader at Windsor Christian Academy and a Warms Springs 4H member, is an award-winning rabbit breeder and caretaker.

“She’s had her rabbits for over a year getting ready to do a breeding program,” said her mother, Amelia Drew. “Some kids had just gotten them. The kids were super bummed.”

Perkins is raising rabbits for meat, to show and to sell for breeding. She’s won multiple local and national awards for her rabbits.

“Usually spring break is when they talk to their buyers, go into the community and talk about their rabbits, beef, sheep or whatever,” Drew said. “They hadn’t gotten an opportunity to tell anyone what was going on.”

Fair board president Nick Dunkel said as soon as it became clear an auction wasn’t in the cards, fair members and ag club leaders pivoted into the online sales idea.

The first day’s auction action was hopeful, he said.

“We have a very, very good buyer-sponsor group,” he said. “It isn’t enough, but things are promising.”

“We’ve had help, for certain,” he said. “And we’re grateful. We’re hopeful we can pull this off and the kids sell well. They have an investment here. They didn’t intend this to happen. And they wanted to show off a little.”

Many of the youths have significant expenses wrapped up in their chosen animal’s upkeep, from its purchase, feed and supplements, veterinary care, farm equipment and more. Initial purchases start at a few hundred dollars or more and can tally $3,000 or more by the time the auction arrives.

Some kids took out no-interest loans from local ag-friendly banking institutions to jump-start their projects, which teach them skills including how to handle money, speak in public and keep accurate records in addition to animal husbandry. The loans typically come due after the students sell their animals.

“Some of them borrowed to do this project,” Dunkel said. “That’s why we didn’t give up. Some fairs have just canceled and said, ‘You’re on your own.’”

Another unique aspect of the Healdsburg fair, board vice president Margaret Basurto said, is that it is the only nonprofit fair auction in the state, which means winning bids can be tax write-offs.

But more than that, she said, the community has pledged to help its young farming prospects not completely lose out because of the virus.

“There are 10 seniors in the auction,” Basurto said. “And they will be using the money for education. The others usually put it back into other projects in years to come.”

Christian Carranza is one of those.

A student at North Bay Met Academy at Windsor High, Carranza raised Duke, a sleek Angus-cross steer this year, his first in Gateway 4H.

“With the money I receive from selling Duke, I plan to invest some of it in my next year’s beef project and then put the rest into savings for college,” he said in his auction video.

Careful not to be too optimistic about how much will be raised online, organizers are banking on strong support the ag community has shown over seven decades for youngsters interested in continuing their profession.

“We know it won’t be better (than live),” Basurto said. “We’re just hoping for as successful as it can be. We’re trying to do this for the exhibitors. That’s why the fair started, trying to benefit kids who put a whole lot of work into their projects.”

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