Raising 4-H Steers Help Wisconsin Gal Pay for College

1 / 3
Jessica Pearce shows off her Hereford steer as she takes it through its paces.
2 / 3
Jessica Pearce, a teen from Bayfield County, Wisconsin, used the money from the sale of her prize Hereford to help fund her college education.
3 / 3
4-H champion livestock bring the best price at auction.

The scramble for financial aid is on. For anyone who has teenagers getting ready to head off to college, you know exactly what we’re talking about. Federal student aid forms, scholarship essays, college applications, graduation parties, savings, hunting for that summer job, and, unfortunately, loans. Sometimes it takes a chimerical combination of resources to get through that first year. That’s where selling 4-H steers could come in.

“I need at least market price,” says soon-to-be college freshman Jessica Pearce. “Everything after that is really good for me.” Moments later, the Bayfield County, Wisconsin, farmer steers her Hereford among a packed crowd of local business owners and community members.

“We’ll start the bidding at $1 … Do I hear $1 … $1.05, $1.10, $1.15 …” as fast as the auctioneer goes, the hands shoot up. Within minutes, the auctioneer shouts, “Sold.” But, Pearce’s job isn’t quite done. She walks over to her newest customer and poses for a photo for the local newspaper. Her steer just sold for a price well over market value. And, while parting with her steer is tough, tomorrow the 18-year-old heads off to college a little more financially secure on her way to make some other dreams come true.

The Bayfield County Livestock Auction, which takes place annually during the county fair, is one of the best in the region. In part, because many of the local businesses bidding on steers were once 4-Hers themselves.

“Our community is a strong supporter of 4-H,” says Ian Meeker, 4-H youth development educator for Bayfield County. “As former 4-Hers, or parents with former 4-Hers, many of the local business owners know how much work the kids put in to showing these animals. They also know they are getting a premium product.”

As for the teens showing, “students really get what they put in,” Meeker says. “But overall, I think the program teaches some core lessons – most important being you learn how to learn new things.” Projects range from building rockets to planting a garden, canning, woodworking or auctioning a steer off at the county fair, to more conventional skills such as public speaking. All in all, there’s pretty much something for everyone.

“Through 4-H, the kids acquire new skills, and then they have the option to apply it to another project. Each project feeds into the next,” Meeker says.

The 4-H program dates back to the early 1900s. Administered by the United States Department of Agriculture and the National Institute of Health, the program was initially set up as a youth development program for rural children as a way to help them do better in college. Today, the program is much broader than that. With more than 6 million members, the program exists in both rural and suburban areas, and it has a core mission of providing experiential learning programs to develop citizenship, leadership and life skills. In other words, 4-H is more than the county fair.

“I don’t think people realize how broad 4-H has become,” Meeker says. “Programs teach leadership, time management, volunteerism, and a variety of other life skills.”

For Pearce, this meant an opportunity to travel to Madison and Washington, D.C. Her club is also active in community service, whether through putting together fruit baskets or cleaning up a chunk of highway through the Adopt a Highway program. But most importantly, the experience has given Pearce the confidence to pursue her dreams.

“I’ve always loved large animals,” she says. At the age of 8, Pearce started showing dairy cattle. At that time she lived in town, so her animals were housed at the farm of a family friend.

Following in her parents’ footsteps – both active 4-Hers growing up – Pearce became more and more involved with the program. Soon after, the family moved to Grandpa’s farm. From there, Pearce took out her own USDA loan to purchase a few head of cattle. Proceeds from market sales helped pay the loan back and allowed her to invest in new cattle.

By 18, Pearce had more “hands-on” learning than she could gain in a classroom; she had a full-on business on her hands. The profits from the business will help pay for college, where Pearce plans to focus her studies on animal science. Her long-term dream to be a large animal veterinarian in Bayfield County is something she’s well on her way to achieving, thanks to 4-H and raising 4-H steers.