Ten minutes into the 4-H animal auction Saturday at the Blaine County Fair in Carey, it's clear who the big players are.
A tiny girl in pigtails herds her 262-pound grand champion pig around the auction ring as subtle nods from cowboy-hatted heads drive the price of the animal from $5 a pound to $5.10 and ultimately to $6. Finally it's sold for a total of $1,572, the highest price a pig will fetch this year.
But the buyer, former wine importer Jim Cimino, isn't going home with the pig. Nor will he take home more than one each of the four pigs, five calves and six sheep he purchased from children in 4-H showing their animals this year.
Instead, he'll donate the animals back to the sellers, allowing the young livestock raisers to keep the money and resell the animals for market price, essentially receiving two payments for the same animal.
Cimino said he attended the Blaine County Fair out of curiosity one year, and has been coming back and bidding on animals ever since. Even he's lost track of the number of years he's been attending, and fair organizers can't remember when he first arrived on the fair scene.
"Everyone just remembers he's been there," said Kathi Kimball, 4-H program advisor at the University of Idaho Extension in Blaine County. "There's been a couple of generations that he's helped."
Philanthropy is a long-standing tradition at the Blaine County Fair, reaching back to the early 1970s when Picabo Livestock, owned by Nick and Bud Purdy, bought 4-H steers at prices well above market value.
Within the past decade, Cimino and late Wood River Valley resident Jim Boswell used to hold bidding wars over the most coveted steers, good-naturedly pushing the prices higher and higher.
"Between the two of us, we used to spend about $100,000," Cimino said.
Boswell passed away in April of last year.
"That friendly rivalry in the market ring has certainly served a generation of Blaine County students very well and very meaningfully," said Larry Schoen, County Commission chair and member of the Blaine County Fair Board.
According to Tracy Green, Blaine County 4-H Leader's Council President, Atkinsons' Market bought her grand champion steer in 1981 at a much better price than she could have gotten on the market.
"If you made a dollar a pound back then, you were sitting good," she said, and Atkinsons' had paid $1.50 a pound for Tracy's animal.
This year, Tracy's daughter Kelsey Green raised a reserve champion steer, which was purchased by relatively new bidder Dusty's Electric. The steer, named Captain, fetched $2.50 a pound, compared to the $.90 Kelsey would have gotten otherwise. As Captain weighed almost 1,300 pounds, Kelsey earned a little over $3,000 for her animal.
Most 4-H kids don't spend the money on frivolities, though.
"There are a few exceptions, but almost all of them put 100 percent into their education fund," Kimball said.
She added that 95 percent of Blaine County 4-H members go to college, normally majoring in education. Without the money they receive from the auction, Kimball said, many of the children wouldn't be able to afford tuition.
"There might be two percent [of 4-H youth] who could go comfortably without it," Kimball said. "For the rest of them, they depend on it. That's why they do this, so they have a little bit of a nest egg."
Youth in 4-H can raise animals for 10 years, and those who raise a steer each year could save over $20,000 during their time in 4-H. That number assumes that parents help fund the cost of raising the animal, which both Tracy and Kimball said often happens.
Of course, those earnings can skyrocket if the buyer decides to donate the animal back to the child, who can sell the animal again. While this maximizes the return to the child, Schoen said, there can be a downside to this practice.
"It creates a little bit of an uncommon outcome among the kids," he said.
He said that with a precedent set for donating the animals back to the sellers, buyers who want to keep their animals may feel embarrassed about it. In addition, there are no rules governing which children will receive the extra benefits.
While one calf could be sold outright for $3 a pound, for example, a child whose sheep fetches $5 a pound and is donated back to him could potentially get $6 a pound for it after resale.
Still, Schoen said, he believes the practice of donating auction animals back is essentially a good one.
"To just give the beef back ... it's very generous. The level of support is just incredible," he said.
The county fair and 4-H are also supported by the community in non-financial ways. Ranchers in the area help by shearing sheep, offering services and farms for weigh-in days and even helping to serve barbecue at the fair's buffet meals.
Tracy and Kimball agree that the fair only exists through the generosity of the community.
"It's the people in the background who make things go better for you," Tracy said. "They don't say a whole bunch, they don't ask for recognition, but they make everything happen."
It's evident by the end of the auction just how much the 4-H members appreciate the support. The sellers surround the major bidders, handing them plaques and asking them to pose for pictures. And instead of the livestock he purchased, Cimino will take home over a dozen thank-you cards from grateful young sellers.
Katherine Wutz: email@example.com