TURLOCK -- Stetson Tucker had a handful of reserve grand champion ribbons, one for each of the three champion hogs he showed, but a hole remained in his ag portfolio.
"I first showed when I was 9 years old, and this is my final fair because I'm 19," said the Turlock Hoof 'n' Horns 4-H member. "I had heard a lot of 'always a bridesmaid, never a bride' these last few weeks."
Tucker's last chance to win the top prize was Leeroy, a 1,275-pound steer with a stunning cinnamon color and the playful demeanor of a kitten.
"I named him for my grandfather and I treated him like a movie star," said Tucker, noting Leeroy dined on high-protein feed, had daily shampoo treatments and lived in luxury. "I wanted Leeroy at his best, so he was pampered."
The extra attention paid off when Leeroy was named supreme champion market steer at this year's Stanislaus County Fair.
Tucker got his ribbon after last week's judging, but his big payoff came Saturday when Leeroy was one of nearly 700 animals sold at the 48th Junior Livestock Auction.
He sold for $6.75 a pound, or a total of $8,600, money Tucker says will go directly into his college checking account. A Hughson High School graduate, he's enrolled at Modesto Junior College and will transfer to Fresno State University to earn a degree in agricultural business.
Like many of the hundreds of 4-H and FFA members who had animals at the fair, Tucker is tied to the county's $2.5 billion ag industry. His family has 5,000 acres of almonds, and Tucker expects to return and help run the operation.
With much of the local economy struggling during a national recession, agriculture is a bright spot many commodity prices are high, exports are booming and folks still need to eat.
Hundreds of tons of meat on the hoof walked through the auction arena this weekend, and many of the best animals had buyers already lined up.
Alexius Watje, an Oakdale sophomore with the supreme champion market goat, got $27 a pound for 101-pound "Pauly D." He's named after the Jersey Shore star, and his performance provided a big boost to Watje's college plans.
"I knew I had a good goat, so we went out and lined up people to bid," said Watje, who is in her first year with Oakdale FFA. "Friends, people my family does business with it all goes right in a college fund."
While Tucker's steer is commonplace, Watje's boer cross is a newcomer to the region. The South African species was scarce until a decade ago.
This one likes it hot
With a fast growth rate and excellent carcass, they're one of the most popular breeds of meat goat in the world. Highly resistant to disease, they enjoy hot, dry semideserts.
The fair only recently began judging meat goats, and they are a blip on the county crop report: just $118,000 in 2010, the most recent figure.
Pauly D was fed two pounds a day prior to the fair, a ratio to keep him stout and muscular and maintain his coat.
"We walk him regularly, because the exercise allows people to see his muscles and the amount of meat on his loin and rack," Watje said. "Pauly D, he is a meat goat after all."
Watje knows a thing or two about quality meat animals: She showed the grand champion market steer at last week's California State Fair.
Maybe it's a family thing?
Kyle Kerlee is Watje's cousin and showed the supreme champion market lamb at the county fair. He's in the same club as Tucker, so it was a good week for Hoof 'n' Horns.
"She's a Hampshire-Suffolk mix and weighs 135 pounds, so I was happy with the sale," said Kerlee, who fetched $30 a pound for a price of $4,050. "I look at my lamb as I would an athlete. Get her healthy food, low fat and high protein, exercise her and she'll perform."
Unlike his peers, Kerlee has an opportunity to see what it feels like to be judged on physical appearance: He's going to Oklahoma this week for a national underclass combine.
He was Hughson's quarterback last fall, despite being a sophomore, and has earned a reputation for being a strong thrower with good footwork.
"It will be fun, having them watch me throw and run, and then they grade me," Kerlee said. "I hope I perform as well as my lamb did at the fair."