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At County Fairs, a Winning Animal Isn’t Everything

At local beauty contests for Minnesota’s finest sheep and goats, the few winners get ribbons and accolades. This is about the unchosen.

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Two goats, Bella (left) and Ella, graze by the water in Freeborn County, Minnesota. Farm animals competing at county fairs are sometimes sold at market for their milk or meat. Others, like Bella, get a reprieve and return to their home pasture.
This story appears in the November 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.

County fairs are a little like beauty pageants for animals. The way we selectively breed goats and sheep has shaped the course of their evolution.

When I moved to Minnesota from Denver, I wanted to capture this notion of competitive livestock lineage. There’s a Will Ferrell movie about race-car driving called Talladega Nights. In it his dad tells him, “If you ain’t first, you’re last.” That’s the mind-set at these county fairs—owners want a grand-champion animal, but most animals don’t win. I think we all know what it’s like not to be chosen, whether for prom or the basketball team or a job. But what does it look like?

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At the Freeborn County Fair, 15-year-old Louis Wagner and Bella, nicknamed Dumb, competed for a spot at the state fair in St. Paul, Minnesota. Louis chose the 1994 Jim Carrey film Dumb and Dumber as a namesake for his goat. “Once you name an animal, you connect with it,” says R. J. Kern, who photographed the pair in 2016.

At fairs I would watch the judges line up the animals and rank them. Then I’d approach the handlers of unchosen contestants and ask if I could create a stylized portrait of them and their animal. The studio-style backdrop adds some formality, but the manure and hay on the ground show the rawness of the setting. I asked the kids to imagine themselves as next year’s champion, and right away you could see their confidence.

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Annabelle (right), an Angora goat whose coat is used to produce mohair, moseys with Prancer through the snow in Anoka County. After photographing unchosen animals at 10 Minnesota county fairs, Kern crisscrossed the state to visit their homes.
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Nelly (left) and her then mate, Redrock, graze in their home pasture in Clay County. The fact that sheep and goats were among the first animals that humans domesticated drew Kern to photograph them. “We’ve evolved with this unique kinship,” he says. “It’s a reciprocal relationship.”

The disappointment of not winning didn’t linger long. For extra perspective I thought I’d also try to photograph the kids and their unchosen animals in their home pasture (at least the ones that weren’t sold at the fair). But it was kind of like interviewing a college senior two months after graduation; many of them had moved on to the next thing.

Small rural communities are changing, and the county fair isn’t necessarily the highlight of a kid’s summer the way it used to be. Hopefully county fairs will still be around in a hundred years, and young people will still be learning the lessons that come with raising and showing animals—although it’s easy to see that this way of life is becoming lost as kids leave the farm. We should all be concerned about what this means for sustainability and stewardship of the land.

R. J. Kern’s book, The Sheep and the Goats, will be published in spring 2018 by Kehrer Verlag.


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