County fair shut down by coronavirus, junior livestock show and auction go online

San Diego County fair junior livestock show and auction.
Ali Trujillo walks her pig “Clyde” before the junior livestock auction in 2017. This year’s show and auction have been moved online because of the novel coronavirus.
(Howard Lipin / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Kids can work two to four months raising a hog, sheep or goat, and four to six months raising a steer.


For hundreds of San Diego youngsters, the annual county fair in Del Mar is a chance to show off and sell the steers, goats, hogs and lambs they’ve spent months raising.

This year, the fair was shut down by the novel coronavirus. But the junior livestock show and auction are going on this week anyway — in cyberspace.

“Animals and agriculture are at the heart of our mission as a fair,” said Jennifer Struever, an exhibit supervisor. “One of our top priorities has been figuring out a way to support these kids who have given so much time and effort to their livestock.”

Instead of standing by and answering questions in person as judges do hands-on inspections of the animals’ muscle tone and fat content, the youngsters (ages 9 to 19) have submitted photos and videos they hope will lead to blue ribbons.

Instead of leading their animals on to a stage at the fairgrounds to await the verdicts of paddle-waving bidders, the kids will watch the auction take place on YouTube.

Struever said 196 animals have been entered in this year’s virtual livestock show, which began Tuesday and runs through Thursday. The crowning of champions, on YouTube, is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday, she said.

Sixty-two animals will be part of the auction, which takes place over two days, Friday and Saturday. Pre-registration is required. Bidders can preview the auction entries and lodge bids, eBay style, on Friday. The auction itself, with online commentary, starts at 9 a.m. on Saturday.

Auctions are a way for the youngsters to recoup the costs of raising the animals, and to earn money for college, Struever said. The exhibitors typically belong to 4-H or Future Farmers of America clubs in the community or at school, and some are from families that have been doing this kind of thing for generations.

Leading up to the show, they work two to four months raising a hog, sheep or goat, and four to six months raising a steer. They spend thousands of dollars on food, veterinary care and other expenses.

“The process of raising livestock teaches kids to have great respect for the whole food system,” Struever said. “It teaches them entrepreneurial skills and life skills. It gives them confidence.”

It isn’t without controversy. In recent years, some animal-rights groups have protested — wearing “Friends Not Food” T-shirts at the auction, for example. Last year, the livestock exhibits were shut down early after an E. coli outbreak killed one child and sickened several others.

Although she didn’t have specifics, Struever said the number of show entries is “much lower” this year in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Some kids weren’t aware of the virtual options or didn’t meet the May 29 deadline to enter. Others had their animals at school facilities, which are closed, and were unable to make videos or take photos required for the online judging.

The number of auction entries is much lower, too. After this year’s fair was canceled in mid-April, and before the virtual auction was set up, many of the kids arranged private sales, Struever said.

“The whole thing has been very challenging on a lot of different levels,” she said. “We’re in uncharted waters here.”

Although many people today associate county fairs with funnel cakes and Ferris wheels, their ties to livestock run much deeper. Historians point to an event held in 1807 in Pittsfield, Mass., that showcased sheep-shearing. Its success prompted organizers to invite local farmers to exhibit their animals the next year, and prizes were awarded.

The idea spread to other nearby rural communities, and then across the country. Before the novel coronavirus arrived, hundreds of county and state fairs were scheduled for this summer in the U.S.

Many, like the one in Del Mar, were expecting to draw more than 1 million visitors.

-- John Wilkens is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune