FORT MEADE – As Bartow High School senior Katie Stokes approached the backyard pens with the two animals she will be showing at the 75th annual Polk County Youth Fair, her sheep Miranda Lambert put her two front hooves on the railing and bleated for treats.
“Every time you walk out here,” Stokes said, smiling and reaching into a nearby bag for some pellets.
In the neighboring pen, her pig, Bean (as in pork and beans), grunted and snorted for attention.
“I’ve had Bean since September – he was just a little baby,” said Stokes, 18, looking at the pink pig. “Now, he’s 260 pounds.”
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Stokes will be participating in her eighth and final Youth Fair, a tradition in her family that also saw her father and grandfather join in when they were in school. Her father, Tommy, Stokes, said his mother wasn’t allowed to participate because girls were barred from competition until the late 1960s.
The 75th Annual Polk County Youth Fair in Bartow starts with weigh-ins on Friday for pigs. Other categories include animals like sheep, market steer and commercial heifers, goats, rabbits and chickens.
Students will also show horses and dogs. There are multiple categories in the consumer sciences division, including sewing, cake-baking and menu planning. Students can also exhibit ornamental plants, along with blueberry buses and citrus trees. And some will show off their whip-cracking skills, while others will try to hit the bullseye in archery.
And 32 schools have entered the annual chili cookoff.
Competitions kick off Saturday morning at 8 a.m., with the horsemanship show.
Hundreds of students in 4-H, Future Farmers of America and Future Homemakers of America clubs compete each year. The fair began in 1947 as a way for students to be judged against each other and the highest standards of perfection in a program “serving to promote the educational development of the youth of the county,” organizers said.
In addition to hundreds of students competing for top prizes and scholarships, more than 200 volunteers support and educate Polk’s youth in the best practices of raising animals and plants.
“Not only are these young exhibitors learning to care for and prepare their projects, they are learning to take responsibility for their project and see it through to the end,” said Maria Wetherington, one of the organizers. “The Youth Fair has created an atmosphere which appeals to the interest of spectators and others who give personal and financial support to the Fair.”
Stokes understands the heartache that can come with raising livestock. Her first sheep, Scrappy, arrived at the ranch in September with worms and died. He was replaced by Miranda in October. Stokes also lost a calf to a rattlesnake bite several years ago.
She credits her teachers at Bartow High School, Brittany Page and Marie Fussell, for curing her of her shyness.
“My ninth-grade year, I was the quietest kid in class,” she said. “Miss Page handed me an officers’ application. I said, ‘I can’t do this.’ She really brought me out of my shell.”
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This year, Stokes is serving as president of the BHS chapter and has traveled to Indianapolis, Daytona and Orlando for national meetings.
Stokes, who lives on the family ranch north of Fort Meade with her grandparents and brother in nearby homes, thanked her family for all they have done for her throughout school, especially her parents, Tommy and April Stokes.
“They have supported me,” she said. “I consider myself the luckiest kid in the world.”
She is also participating in the cake competition with her Nana’s butternut cake recipe – which she has tweaked a little – and is entering hydrangeas and ferns in the ornamental plant competition.
Stokes is headed to Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton, Georgia, in the fall and hopes to return to Polk County to work in agriculture communications.
As for Bean, well, he’ll be called bacon in the next month or so. But the Stokes are hoping that country singer Miranda Lambert will hear about her namesake sheep and want to let her live out her life on the entertainer’s Tennessee farm.
“We’ll drive her up there,” Tommy Stokes added.
If not, Miranda Lambert (the sheep) will be sold as a breeding ewe.
Ledger reporter Kimberly C. Moore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 863-802-7514. Follow her on Twitter at @KMooreTheLedger.
75th Annual Polk County Youth Fair
- January 22-28
- Located at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Science’s Stewart Center
- 1702 Highway 17 South
- Admission is free