By Kimberly Rivers
The sun is just peaking over the ridges to the east. It’s late fall in Ventura County and while it might get hotter throughout the day, the morning is brisk and requires a coat. Across the county a group of kids are choosing to get up, much earlier than they have to for school. They pull on boots, maybe cup a warm mug of cocoa in their hands and head out the back door or pile into the car, still half asleep.
Some kids get up early for sports or to work out. These kids are getting up to check on and feed animals they are raising as part of agricultural programs.
In the morning some may be opening chicken coops, tossing feed to let the hens out to scratch for the day. Others are making sure pigs have enough mud to wallow in if the weather is going to get hot. One child might be taking the temperature of a Black Angus steer who’s had a temperature for a few days to decide if a vet visit is warranted. They’ll do the same thing after school, and on the weekends. Every day, every week, for months.
Caring for their animals isn’t the only task that falls to these young ag enthusiasts. They are also in charge of tracking and managing expenses, to make sure their initial investments will bear fruit come auction day, and some animals will be training them for handling at the market show and competition in front of judges.
Many are members of national organizations like 4-H, Future Farmers of America or the Grange. Some are not affiliated with any organization. All, however, are learning important life skills and building unique experiences.
Nurturing the future
“This is a 146-year tradition at the Ventura County Fair. Ventura County history is born in agriculture,” said Megan Hook, president and CEO of 805 Ag Kids, a Camarillo-based nonprofit organization that grew out of a desire to support kids in agriculture in Ventura County. During the pandemic, the organization shifted into planning and running market shows and livestock auctions to ensure kids have a venue for their animal projects each year. “Our whole mission is to support kids in their agricultural endeavors.”
What started as a loose group of concerned parents, community members and business owners who recognized the value of these youth agriculture groups in Ventura County has grown into a strong advocacy organization for the future of agriculture in the county.
“The idea was started pre-pandemic.” Hook explained.
Prior to COVID-19 wreaking havoc on daily lives and annual events, the big issue for youth livestock groups was commission rates. When kids sell their animals at auction, the fair foundation takes a commission rate of the sale price. Kids and families attempted to lobby the Ventura County Fair Board to maintain the current commission rates on the youth livestock auctions, rather than raise them. Each of the ag groups spoke up and talked about the impact on their groups.
According to Hook, families realized there was “nobody to speak up for the kids collectively, there wasn’t a collective effort to advocate for all ag kids, no matter how they participate.”
This is when the roots of 805 Ag Kids began to take hold.
A lifeline during the pandemic
The group formed casually in late 2019, and officially became a nonprofit organization in 2020. Then the COVID shutdowns meant holding the fair was unlikely.
“We didn’t start out putting on livestock shows,” noted Hook. When the fair was canceled in 2020, kids who had been raising animals for many months were at risk of not being able to sell their animals, potentially losing thousands of dollars.
Advocacy from 805 Ag Kids ensured an event took place in 2020 for the kids. The fair ran an all-virtual event in 2020. Kids filmed themselves showing their animals for the online market shows, and an online live auction created an avenue through which participants could sell livestock.
The organization offered to send volunteers to the fairgrounds “to do whatever we could to help these kids.” For the 2020 event, 805 Ag Kids volunteers became the communication link between the fairground staff and families, effectively stepping into a gap to let families know “what was happening.”
“In 2020 we fundraised for the kids. We knew it was not going to be the greatest outcome. A lot of people and businesses were affected [by the pandemic closures] and we didn’t know what was going to happen,” Hook said. Kids and parents were uncertain about whether it was worth it to keep the animals, or whether they should just try to sell them early, and perhaps take a loss.
“Our primary task [in 2020] was fundraising for the kids. In six weeks, we raised over $92,000 for the kids.”
That entire amount was split evenly between all the kids who still had their animals and would be participating in the planned online event. Each participant received $431 as an “add on” to the sale price of their animal in the online auction event.
“It didn’t save the day, but it was a significant boost in what ended up being very low prices in the fair’s virtual auction,” confirmed Hook.
When it became clear that 2021 would be another fallow year for the Ventura County Fair, 805 Ag Kids became a valuable lifeline once again. Livestock raisers and breeders begin planning fair animal projects the year before, and the organization became the communication hub for getting the latest update from fair officials about whether any events would be scheduled or organized for the kids.
“Who will, and who could, put on a show for these kids, to keep them interested and engaged in these programs? It had to be us,” said Hood.
805 Ag Kids started planning well in advance, even before the fair board officially announced there’d be no fair in 2021. This meant kids had some level of certainty and something to be excited about.
Keeping a legacy alive
The organization’s founders and members understood that beyond just a livestock show and auction, the future of local chapters of various agricultural organizations — 4-H, Future Farmers of America (FFA), The Grange — that kids join, would be in jeopardy of disappearing.
Hook and the others were “not willing to take that risk. We knew if we didn’t find a way to continue the market shows and auction, we’d lose even more kids, that was our biggest concern.”
Hood said the numbers of kids in those organizations fell dramatically in the past two years. And if the auctions weren’t taking place, the infrastructure — the breeders, buyers and the local chapters — would likely wither as well. To ensure participation in future years, interest at the younger ages has to be cultivated, effectively planting a seed to ensure there is an interest when the kids are in high school.
“Ask any alumni of any of these programs about how important they were to their future. It’s not just about raising an animal. That is just one project.”
Hood gave her experience as an example. She participated in the public speaking contest, loan analysis contest, liabilities and assets. “These skills really helped me as an adult, understanding my mortgage documents, refinancing paperwork . . . skills that can really shape their futures. Some go on to have careers in ag, but either way they’ve gained skills that are so important.
“They could be doing anything anywhere, getting into trouble, sitting at home bored during the pandemic. Instead these kids persevered . . . worked hard on their projects, put in a lot of time every single day.”
The livestock aspects and agricultural organizations are what make the fair, the fair. There is a field of people, businesses and systems that support the youth livestock projects, including breeders, businesses, buyers and judges, Many have supported the youth livestock program for 40 years or more.
“It is very much generational and rooted in tradition,” Hook explained. “I’d hate to see that go away. Most of the community would really hate to see that go away.”
Because of the work of 805 Ag Kids, and the extensive fundraising from individuals and local businesses, the market shows in 2021 were in person.
“We rented the livestock barn from the fairgrounds and held two days of in-person shows for 150 kids and their animals . . . It was amazing.”
Judges travelled from out of town for the shows and talked about the importance of keeping these types of annual programs going for the future of agriculture.
But the best part was the experience for the kids.
“The kids were really excited to have the opportunity to show in person.”
The livestock barn was cleaned and stalls were set up for the show by 805 Ag Kids volunteers.
“It was really worth it, just being on the fairgrounds,” said Hook. “Being in that livestock barn was really special for the kids.”
A week after the shows, the online auction started. It allowed buyers to bid over several days. And prices were up from the previous year. “The community really showed up for these kids.” There were 1,400 add-on donations for 136 kids. Hook said they weren’t sure about how many buyers there’d be. “We weren’t sure we’d sell every animal . . . it was emotional . . . This community came through in such an enormous way.”
Hook herself participated in youth livestock projects growing up. “I’m passionate about ag because I raised animals in high school through the Camarillo FFA. The things I learned really shaped who I am today.” When her kids got old enough to show, they participated as well. “I want my daughter, who is 6 now, to be able to do it. If we don’t keep the kids engaged, it will go away. It will stop being a part of the fair, I’d hate to see that.”
Whether you shop at the local farmers markets, pick up farm-fresh eggs from a stand in your neighborhood, or just enjoy driving past rows of crops, your life in Ventura County is likely improved because of local agriculture.
“One in 10 families still derive their income from agriculture. Our fair is a county fair based in agriculture . . . those are our roots and we can’t continue agriculture in Ventura County without these kids. They are the future. We are supporting the next generation of agriculture in Ventura County.”
805 Ag Kids
The 2022 Ventura County Fair will take place Wednesday, Aug. 3 – Sunday, Aug. 14.