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4-H'ers Take on Marketing Role

by Jerry Goshert

Published: Friday, August 7, 2020

The 2020 county fair season has been unlike any other, to say the least. Whether held virtually or in-person, the normally social, in-person 4-H exhibitions have looked very different this year due to COVID-19 restrictions.

For livestock exhibitors like Zach Klotz of Nappanee, one of the big challenges of the 2020 Elkhart County 4-H Fair was having to decide how he should market his two 4-H beef animals.

In a normal year, Klotz said he would sell his beef projects in the fair's 4-H auction, after which the animals would be loaded onto a trailer and shipped to a slaughter plant for processing. A few weeks later, Klotz and other 4-H participants would receive their payment in the mail.

However, since the Elkhart County 4-H Fair is holding a virtual auction this year and not a live, in-person event as in previous years, Klotz and most other exhibitors decided to bring their animals home on show day and made arrangements to sell them privately. This process involves more planning, some negotiation with potential buyers, and also the additional labor and expense of feeding the animals until they are finally sold.

But Klotz, who is a 10-year 4-H member, said he concluded that he could earn more money by harvesting the beef and selling the meat directly to family and friends. On Monday, he and his father, Tim, delivered both beef animals, a Chi steer and one crossbred market heifer, both of which earned second place ribbons at the fair, to Martin's Custom Butchering in Wakarusa for processing.

Now, it's just a matter of time before the meat is processed and ready for customers to pick up. He said all of his 4-H beef has been spoken for. He's charging his customers $2.80 per pound plus their share of the processing fee.

If he had chosen otherwise, Klotz could have put his beef animals on the "turn" truck and received the prevailing market price of $1.01 per pound. Some 4-H'ers did that, while others hauled their steers to local auction barns. Last year, 4-H steers sold at the Elkhart County 4-H Fair earned an average of $1.80 per pound, and Klotz's 2019 steer earned well over $2 per pound.

This year, there were 80 steers shown in the Elkhart County 4-H showcase, along with 15 beef animals that were exhibited virtually, according to Steve George, 4-H beef club leader. He estimated that 60 percent to 70 percent of the club's 4-H steers were sent to local butchers for processing, up from 50 percent in a normal year, he said.

Due to the uptick in 4-H business, local butcher shops are scheduled through next July and beyond, according to Shane Oberholzer, owner of Martin's Custom Butchering. He said his slaughtering operation is currently running 55 to 60 hours a week to keep pace with the surge of fair animals.

Oberholzer said his butcher shop accepts 4-H cattle and hogs from five area fairs, Elkhart, St. Joseph (Ind.), Kosciusko, Cass (Mich.) and Berrien.

According to Oberholzer, the business is handling about twice the usual volume of both hogs and beef. He expects around 40 steers and 75 hogs from Elkhart County alone, and most of those were scheduled in the two weeks preceding the fair.

Due to the show-and-go format of this year's fair, all of the 4-H beef animals had to be taken home after they were exhibited last Monday. In a normal year, those steers would be kept at the fairgrounds until the final Friday of the fair, when the auction is held.

Oberholzer said most Elkhart County 4-H animals weren't scheduled for processing until this week, so Klotz and other 4-H'ers had to care for their steers a little longer. He said some 4-H'ers plan to exhibit their animals at the state fair before hauling them to the butcher.

Another 10-year 4-H'er facing a difficult marketing decision was Madeline Gawthrop of New Paris. Her champion swine animal placed fifth overall and was selected as the champion Yorkshire barrow. That hog was one of eight that she raised this year. Her intention was to sell two pigs in the 4-H auction, but 4-H officials this year changed the format.

Instead of the hogs being sold to the highest bidder and then loaded onto a trailer bound for a slaughter plant, the online, premium-only auction provided 4-H'ers with a modest donation. The 4-H'ers retained ownership of their market animals.

In previous years, hogs sold through the fair's 4-H auction would be loaded onto a turn truck. This year, however, that option wasn't available, so Gawthrop and other swine exhibitors had to bring their pigs home.

When 4-H'ers learned early this summer that they would have to make their own arrangements for the processing of 4-H animals, many worked with local butcher shops to reserve time on their respective calendars. Gawthrop plans to send four hogs to Roland's Processing in Nappanee and three others to the Topeka Livestock Auction.

Like Klotz, she intends to harvest the meat processed by Roland's and sell it to family and friends. For the hogs sold at auction, she hopes those animals will provide protein for food-insecure people.

Both Gawthrop and Klotz also exhibited dairy feeder calves at the fair this year and were able to find local buyers who will show the calves again next summer as dairy steers. However, the amount they receive from this week's online auction will reflect a combined premium for all of their market animals (beef steers, hogs, dairy feeder calves, etc.). Most likely, that amount will be much less than the dollar amount they would have earned had they sold the animals individually.

Four-H'ers in St. Joseph County exhibited their animals through a virtual exhibition. Youths at that fair didn't have the option of selling their cattle or hogs to a turn buyer, so they either marketed their animals locally or, like Klotz and Gawthrop, paid for the processing and sold the meat.

According to Oberholzer, he is accepting a maximum of 40 steers from each of the five fairs that he works with. He said the demand for locally raised beef and pork has increased dramatically during the pandemic, and especially since several large meatpacking plants temporarily closed due to their workers being affected by COVID-19. The closings created a disruption in the food supply, prompting many consumers to look for a more sustainable source for their meat.

For local meat processors, the increased business means they are running at full capacity—and Oberholzer said that's not expected to change anytime in the next year.

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