4/27/2013 7:00 AM
By Andrew Jenner Virginia Correspondent
Contest Makes Debut at Annual Beef Expo
HARRISONBURG, Va. — Cattle were on everybody’s minds last Friday at the Rockingham County Fairgrounds, the site of the 2013 Virginia Beef Expo.
The grass field down past the show barns was parked full of pickups pulling livestock trailers, many of them driven by men wearing cowboy hats. And as a several-day program of sales, shows and related events swung into gear, a group of aspiring Virginia Beef Ambassadors clustered outside the petting zoo and farm museum buildings that hosted the ambassador contest, the first of the weekend’s events.
“I like the beef industry, and I want to be more active in it,” said Hunter Watkins, a 10th-grader at Louisa County High School and one of five contestants in the junior division of the Virginia Beef Ambassador Contest. (Awaiting his go at the mock media interview — one of the segments of the ambassador contest — Lancaster Farming stopped Watkins for the real deal.)
Until last year, the Beef Ambassador contest had been part of the state 4-H congress, before joining forces this year with the beef expo. Dara Booher, a 4-H Extension agent in Rockingham County who organized this year’s contest, said the change of venues and a new format opened the contest to a wider group of contestants, including anyone between the ages of 12 and 20, regardless of whether they live on a farm or participate in 4-H.
With the encouragement of Stephanie Shank, the previous contest winner who helped Booher put on this year’s event, the 2013 contest was modeled after the national Beef Ambassador contest. (Shank said she had a fantastic time representing Virginia at nationals in Sacramento, Calif., last year.)
Under the new rules, the five contestants in the junior division had to complete the mock media interview and participate in a mock consumer promotion event. The senior contest — which had three entrants — included those two elements, plus a written rebuttal to a news article speculating that a growing global population will place such a strain on the earth’s resources that everyone will have to adopt vegetarian diets.
“Through this program, we can fix misperceptions and inform people about what beef can do for their health,” said Shank, who grew up on a Rockingham County dairy farm and attends Blue Ridge Community College.
At the end of the morning-long contest, judges named Phillip Saunders, 15, of Nelson County, the winner of the junior contest. Placing first, second and third in the senior division were, in order: Kate Belcher, 17, of Washington County; Jessica Houff, 17, of Augusta County; and Claire Shank, 16, of Rockingham County.
Together, the four will make up this year’s Virginia Beef Ambassador team for the coming year, during which they will promote the industry at several major events. Each will receive small cash prizes, and Belcher, the top senior contestant, will also receive a sponsorship to attend the national contest later this year in Arkansas.
“One of the most overwhelming comments from the judges was that it was such a tight, competitive group,” said Booher afterward. “They all really knew their stuff.”