After the last ribbons are handed out at the Carroll County 4-H Fair, some serious money starts changing hands when county bigwigs open their checkbooks to bid two to four times market value on the steers, lambs, hogs and other animals that fetch about $179,000 a year.
Some of the money raised in the livestock auctions that are the culmination of the fair is donated to the fair or scholarship funds, but most 4-H members keep at least enough to cover feed costs, which can easily reach $1,000, and to build their savings for college.
"I made $3,500 last year," said Mike Utz, 15, of Lineboro whose 1,200-pound steers were grand champion this year and last.
Last year, his steer fetched the highest price, $2.50 a pound, when the market rate was 50 to 65 cents a pound.
Friday night, he received $5,376 -- or $4.20 a pound -- for his grand champion steer, Claude.
The winning bidder was C. J. Miller Inc., an excavation and paving company.
Most steers at the fair sell for about $1 a pound. A grand champion always earns more.
Mike also sold lambs at the auction and in the spring sold young lambs for $75 each to 4-H members to raise for the fair.
"I work all year," Mike said. "I've had these steers since November. It's nice to get paid for your work. It's a full-time, 24-seven job."
The successful bidders on Mike's animals admire his entrepreneurial spirit. Developer Martin K. P. Hill and C. J. Miller owner Charles J. "Buck" Miller went in on Mike's steer from last year.
Miller employs Mike's father, Dennis Utz, and all three men sometimes work together on projects.
Hill said such family and business connections usually figure in bidding on 4-H animals.
"Mike's father works closely with us, and Mike has been very successful with his animals," Hill said. "When he has champions and reserve champions, where he has a lot of work invested in them, we try to support him. He's a totally focused young man."
Before the fair, Mike alerts Hill, Miller and others that he will have worthy animals at the auction.
He was 9 when he auctioned his first livestock.
"I started out with two sheep, Woody and Mae, six years ago, and it's built me up to 20 breeding ewes, seven market hogs and two steers," Mike said.
He has refined the way he chooses a calf, the daily washing and grooming that produce an attractive animal, and the feed mix of 100 percent grain that will ensure tender meat.
Plans for the money
He uses the money from each year's sales to increase his stock the next year. He also plans to invest some money in the stock market to build his college fund.
"I'd like to have enough to get me through a year or two of college. And if I'm accepted, I can get a scholarship through livestock judging," he said.
He wants to attend the University of Maryland, College Park and perhaps become a veterinarian or an extension agent working with 4-H youth.
Carroll County businesses such as R. D. Bowman feed store and Finch Services, a John Deere dealer, are among the largest buyers at the livestock auction.
They see it as a way to give back to the agriculture community.
Giving something back
Many 4-H members buy their feed from Bowman, for example, and their parents might buy tractors from Finch.
"We feel like it's a way to give back to the people who support us from year to year," said Dirk Bowman, co-owner of the feed company.
He usually spends $5,000 to $7,000 on three steers and a few pigs. He donates one steer to be butchered for raffle prizes at the fair and the other two for the fair organizers to resell at a commercial livestock auction. The proceeds help pay for expansion of the Carroll County Agricultural Center.
In that way, Bowman said, he contributes to the children who raise the animals as well as to something benefiting all 4-H youth.
Farmers such as Deborah Gwynne, who lives near Taneytown, have enough beef steers to raise and sell but buy animals to support the fair. Last year, she offered to buy the lambs that hadn't sold because they lacked the weight and grade to be auctioned.
It might be easier to make a large, tax-deductible donation to the fair or to a scholarship fund at the end of each year, but it wouldn't be nearly as much fun.
A chance beginning
A friend invited Hill to his first 4-H auction about 15 years ago. "I wound up buying the grand champion, and I've been going back ever since," said Hill.
Little of the meat ends up on Hill's dinner plate, he said. Last year, he and Miller sent the grand champion to another livestock auction and sold it at market rate.
Hill has donated animals to a small food bank in Manchester and to needy families at a soup kitchen his church supports. He said many soup kitchens and food banks have trouble storing fresh and frozen meat.
Finch Services buys a few animals every year and divides the meat among employees, salesman Stephen Shipley said.
FCNB Bank President Patrick Linton said he buys livestock at the Carroll and Frederick county fairs and uses the meat for door prizes at the employees' annual holiday party in mid-January.
The fair also auctions the cakes, cookies and pies that children enter. But proceeds go to the fair, not the baker.
This year's grand champion cake, baked by Lindsey Bream, sold for $1,675 to Jim Uhler, an equipment dealer.
Bowman said he and his family usually buy three or four baked goods and bring them in for employees.
But it isn't always big business that bids on the cakes, most of which sell for $200 and up.
As Allyson Lethbridge of Middleburg proudly walked her junior champion pound cake up and down the aisles of the pavilion while auctioneer Nevin Tasto sang out dollar figures, two people began a bidding duel that ended with one of her proud grandmothers conceding to the other -- and a $210 donation to the Carroll County 4-H Fair.