SALEM, Ohio — Each summer, thousands of fairs across the country give visitors a chance to check out every kind of animal, from horses to hamsters. The pens are always full of sleeping pigs, nibbling goats and scratching chickens.
But if you go through the barns at the Alaska State Fair, you’ll see something that’s a bit unusual to most people. At this fair, you’re likely to see reindeer peering back at you from the stalls.
Although they don’t fly or pull Santa’s sleigh or hang out with elves, they are exhibited in a livestock competition as meat animals. And this year, Ohio livestock judge Keith Chamberlin had the challenge of evaluating a group of these exotic creatures.
Chamberlin, who lives in Ashland County, has judged livestock for 30 years at numerous county fairs and 18 state fairs. His bid to judge in Alaska began two decades ago when a friend mentioned Chamberlin’s name to the state fair board. But for 20-some years, the invitation never came. Then, in 2007, he got the call: Would you still be interested in judging at the Alaska State Fair?
There was no hesitation.
“Yes, I would,” Chamberlin said.
The Alaska State Fair poses an interesting situation for those who judge there. A single person evaluates every species in all open and junior shows and judges all showmanship classes.
A sheep expert by trade, Chamberlin judged a full slate of livestock, including dairy, beef, sheep, goats, swine and reindeer. He would’ve judged caribou, too, but none were entered.
The judge said it wasn’t a problem for him to assess the different species because of his experience on judging teams and because he tries to keep up on all types of livestock.
And while judging the 15 farm-raised reindeer was unique, it wasn’t complicated.
“I was kind of intrigued by the reindeer because you judge them as a meat animal,” Chamberlin said.
Reindeer are showed at 2 years old and doubled-haltered in the show ring for better control. Because most reindeer have large antlers, exhibitors hold the animals away from them. There’s no show stick involved, as exhibitors need to keep both hands on the halters, but the reindeer are trained to stand like steers.
Female reindeer can weigh up to 400 pounds and some males grow to about 700 pounds.
To prepare for the show, the animals are washed once upon their arrival at the fair. After that, they are simply brushed before going into the show ring.
The reindeer made for an impressive livestock show, according to Chamberlin.
“When you touch them, they’re as hard as a rock,” he said.
The Alaska State Fair, which is one of nine annual fairs in the state, begins in late August each year and continues through Labor Day. The 299-acre fairgrounds is located in Palmer, Alaska, a small town about 40 miles northeast of Anchorage.
In 2007, the state fair attracted about 285,000 visitors during its two-week run. That’s a bit of an influx for Palmer, which had just over 4,500 permanent residents in 2000.
Chamberlin said goats — meat and dairy — are a popular choice among exhibitors in Alaska. Nigerian Dwarfs, small dairy goats, are a particular favorite.
According to the judge, many people choose to raise small animals due to the cost of hay, which currently runs $12-15 for a 50-pound bale.
A cool, wet summer has made it almost impossible to produce hay this year, but Alaskan farmers have a unique solution to bad hay years. Chamberlin said farmers wait for the temperature to stay steadily below freezing and when it does, they mow, rake and bale a native grass that’s related to fescue.
“The frozen grass goes in the round bales, so it’s never thawed out until it goes in the animal’s stomach,” Chamberlin said.
It’s called ice hay, although there’s not much ice or snow in it once it goes through the baling process. Most ice hay contains grasses, a tundra legume, bird’s-foot and clovers, a combination that helps provide proper nutrition for the animals.
Chamberlin said the quality of animals he evaluated was similar to the quality found anywhere else in the country, although Alaska has very few sheep raised for meat.
In all the shows, the competitive spirit among the young exhibitors was evident.
“Their kids, they’ve got a killer look in their eye,” Chamberlin said.
But outside the ring, there was a camaraderie that Chamberlin hasn’t seen at other shows he’s judged.
“Their kids all work together better than any group of kids I’ve ever seen,” he said.
The teamwork was especially apparent during livestock shows.
“They all work together and help each other get their animals in the ring,” Chamberlin said. “Like the pig show, everybody helps. I don’t care if it’s the sheep kids or the cattle kids, everybody helps get the pigs to the ring. When it comes time to get the cattle to the ring, the pig kids help get the cattle to the ring.”
It’s not only impressive, it’s rare, the judge said.
So, is Chamberlin hoping to make the same 8,000-mile, 16-hour round-trip flight again someday?
You can bet your blue ribbon.