The Napa County Town & Country Fair wouldn’t open for a few hours, but the parking lot was already packed Saturday morning as people made their way toward the Junior Livestock Auction, where hundreds of Napa County youth prepared to showcase their animals in hopes of earning enough money to make them feel like they were in hog heaven.

Napa County kids in local 4-H and Future Farmers of America (FFA) programs have been raising and tending to their animals for months, helping them grow big and strong, to net the attention of local buyers. This year’s auction featured 242 hogs, 50 goats, 26 market steers, 74 lambs and two turkeys.

Russell Wilms, 10, was participating in the auction for the first time. Representing Pope Valley 4-H, Wilms was patiently waiting next to his pig’s stall, eager to talk to anyone who wanted to know more about his pig, Hammy.

“I’ve learned so much this year,” Wilms said with a big smile. “My brother did pigs last year, and it looked like fun, so I wanted to give it a try. It’s a lot of work, but it really is a lot of fun.

“You learn a lot about your animal, but you also learn a lot about responsibility. Like, I have to clean Hammy’s pen every day or it gets really stinky. He also likes to eat a lot, so I have to make sure he’s getting the right amount of food. I want him to get big, but not too big. I want him to be healthy – healthy big.”

Wilms admitted he was a little nervous about taking the auction stage for the first time, but he was more eager to get a good bid, so that he can invest the money into another pig project next year.

Sandra Cortes, 15, has been involved in the junior livestock auction for four years, but she said she still gets anxious on auction day.

“I get really nervous when it’s my turn,” Cortes said. “I can’t seem to shake that, but I think everyone gets nervous to some extent.”

Cortes likes to stay busy on auction day by helping out her fellow Valley Ranchers 4-H members. Even though she’s been involved with livestock for several years, she said there is still a lot to learn. This year, she’s been spending her time at Fair learning about steer.

She said she’d like to move up to steer after working with goats and lambs for two years each. “This year I’m focusing on learning about steers and how to work with them – how to keep them calm. I’d like to do steer competition next year, so I’m practicing as much as I can.”

Hannah Madole is no stranger to working with livestock. The 15-year-old Napa FFA member spent 11 years in 4-H before joining FFA when she started at Vintage High School. While the hog auction was well underway, Madole was bathing her 1,306-pound steer Floyd.

“Floyd’s been a bit stressed, so I decided to come spray him down to help him relax,” she said.

“Steer is a lot more work,” she added. “You have to wash them more and be more hands-on in general. They are larger and have more power so you need to be careful, patient and establish trust. You can buy them halter trained, but I prefer to do that myself. I had Floyd trained after a week. My last steer took five months, so this time’s been a lot easier.”

Madole, who also sold a pig at auction, said she’d like to pursue a career in large animal veterinary medicine and is grateful to have an opportunity to work with livestock animals at a young age.

Payton Yeo, 16, has been involved with 4-H for 10 years. She got interested in animals when her family moved near a 4-H farm in American Canyon. After seeing the animals and learning that she could raise one herself, Yeo joined 4-H.

Over the years she’s raised chickens, lambs, hogs and steer. This year, she had a pig and steer to showcase at auction. Despite her experience, Yeo said she was still caught off guard by the realization that she’d be saying goodbye to her animals.

“It hit me this morning that I’m selling my animals today,” Yeo said. “I’m going to miss them. It’s always rough, but you get new ones. But you have to understand that this is where our meat comes from. It’s just how life works, so it gives you a new appreciation for the animals.”

Yeo said this year might be tougher emotionally because she became attached to her pig Penelope, which she called a princess. “She’s my favorite animal I’ve ever had. She has a great personality, and she’s so smart. She likes belly rubs. I’ve had a good time with her.”

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Despite the sadness, Yeo said she loves auction day. She enjoys meeting people and talking about the various programs and projects 4-H has in addition to livestock – programs such as art, textiles, camping and cooking.

But what she loves the most about auction is seeing the community come out to support its younger residents.

“Everything sells at the Napa auction,” Yeo said. “The community is so supportive and generous with their bids. They know they aren’t just buying an animal. They see it as an investment in the Napa Valley youth. Most of us put the money right into our next project, but we also put it away for school. One year I donated to Relay For Life. The community knows that the money they’re spending is going to a good place.”

Madison Martin, 19, from St. Helena FFA, agreed that community support makes the whole process worthwhile. She was spritzing her pig with Swine Shine while waiting her turn in the auction arena.

“I’ve learned in the past few years just how lucky I’ve been to grow up in St. Helena. The community is so supportive and they want us to succeed.”

Martin joined FFA in high school and was instantly hooked. “I love everything about it. After I raised my first hog, I thought, ‘Why have I not been doing this since I was 7?’ But I’m glad I’ve been able to be a part of it even if just for a little while.”

“I just graduated from high school so I’m about to age out, but this experience has meant the world to me. I’ve learned about budgeting, financing, networking, professionalism and all these other life skills you just don’t get in a classroom.”

As Martin continued to gush about her love for the program, a fellow FFA member told her to get ready to take the floor. She grabbed her crop.

“Time to go.”

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Samie Hartley is the Napa Valley Register online editor. Her column Simple & Sassy runs on alternating Sundays.