Food and Culture in the South:
Meat Goat Showmanship at the State Fair
In part 2 of a 2-part series, a Durham boy shows his goats at a competition at the North Carolina State Fair. Read about the preparation in part 1.
An hour before the showmanship competition at the North Carolina State Fair, Joel Dahms sits in a camping chair by the goat pen. His two meat goats, Kevin and Nike, bend down to explore the pen’s sawdust floor. They can’t eat it because they’re wearing muzzles, though it seems they would like to.
“All goats will die if you scratch them here,” Joel says, standing up to scratch Kevin just behind the shoulder blades. It’s a spot Kevin can’t reach because he doesn’t have horns, and his face looks drunk with pleasure. His eyes roll back in his head, which Joel says is how you know he’s feeling good, and how you calm a goat down before going into the show ring.
A few bald spots the size of pencil erasers are visible on Kevin’s rear—marks from his staph infection. Joel has decided to use Nike instead for showmanship because he doesn’t want Kevin’s spots to affect the judge subconsciously.
He also believes Nike is a more eye-catching goat. He’s ninety pounds with a pleasing roundness and a rump that looks both pillowy and strong. He was a pain to work with at first, but he’s gotten much better.
The two goats share a pen in a block of pens behind the livestock building. Dozens of Boer goats will live in this temporary city for the next two days, until they’re sold to market on Saturday. The State Fair is optionally terminal—you can take your wether home if you want, but for most livestock, including Nike and Kevin, the end point of the Fair is a processing plant.
The young lady from Lenoir County, Joel’s friend and closest rival, comes over with her sister to say hello. Her name is Kaelyn Mohrfield and she and her sister Makensie won ribbons all fall—Makensie in the younger division. Kaelyn took the circuit championship for 2012. She let us take a picture of her belt buckle.
Joel and Kaelyn talk about what to wear. The question comes up: why do all parents feel like they have to buy you a new shirt for the state fair? Joel’s parents want him to wear yellow but he always wears orange. When the Mohrfield sisters leave, Joel explains that they’re all pretty close on the meat goat circuit. If you lose, “it’s not like you’re going to lose to a random person. It’s different when you lose to one of your friends.”
The showmanship competition begins in a building that was made for livestock: a high, arched ceiling with lots of open air. The pigs are penned here, and their screaming, which sounds like a watery drain slid open to hell, is background for the goat show.
The novices go first: children eight years or under with varying degrees of control over their goats. One tiny girl in pink-accented cowboy boots pulls her goat’s neck chain. She has her head down, arm extended, full weight pulling forward. She just gets him in line when he gets loose, head butts another goat, trots to the center of the ring and rears up on his back legs. The judge’s assistant gets hold of him and delivers him back to his handler. There is no rescue in goat showmanship—the animal is simply returned to the child.
The novices may not be far enough along in human development to have mastery over a goat, but they’ve already mastered the look: colorful button down shirts and crisp jeans, rhinestone-studded belts for the girls, some with giant buckles. The most competitive hairstyle for girls seems to be a French-braided side ponytail tied with ribbon.
The sun goes down outside the livestock building and the rides light up beyond the goat tent. The junior competition wraps up and it’s time for the seniors. Joel and Nike enter the ring, Joel wearing yellow. He and Nike have a smooth walk, and Joel whips him around to stand in line for the judge with one fluid motion.
Kaelyn comes out in a rose pink button down and walks in long strides, hips forward, one hand on her goat’s neck chain. She looks powerful and composed. She takes her place in line and the judge makes his first pass at the goats.
The judge is a large man from Texas with very large hands. He wears a black jacket, jeans, and a goatee, and his hands will only fit into his pockets up to the thumb joint. In between classes, he likes to make booster statements about kids and livestock, saying things like, “This is the best thing you can do with your kids, no doubt.”
The teenagers stalk the judge with their eyes. They have been taught to always watch his movements, to meet his gaze in case he looks over at them; they have practiced this for years. They’ve been taught also to keep their goat’s bodies in between themselves and the judge: You never want to mar an opportunity for him to look at your goat.
The eye contact of the seniors was particularly fierce. Sometimes the judge would get close, bending down to feel a goat’s loin, and the showman would be inches away, eyes locked on him even though he wasn’t looking back. It felt intense, all these teenagers staring at this big man in jeans, trying to appeal to his subconscious.
Joel and Kaelyn are picked out of their class to go to the championship drive. They re-enter the ring with the best seniors, some of whom have one hundred and twenty pound goats. Joel whips Nike into place and holds him steady. Nike’s butt is looking plump and when the judge comes around for a feel, Nike’s flesh bounces back under his touch. I do not see the same quality of bounce back in any of the other goats. One person’s goat’s butt is quivering. One goat is exploring his showman’s belt and shirt with his teeth, tongue, and lips.
The judge comes around, sampling goats with one or two grabs, sometimes a whole series of quick grabs along the spine. Sometimes he’ll skip a goat and not grab it at all. What must that feel like, to be passed up by his hand? He makes his eliminations and the group gets smaller. He places Joel fifth.
It comes down to Kaelyn and a young lady from Jones County. Kaelyn and her goat lean into each other in a solid brace. Her championship belt buckle glints in her goat’s eye. Jones County holds steady around her goat’s head, her body like a picture frame for its muscle. Her goat is huge. The judge chooses Jones County for champion. Kaelyn wins reserve.
Outside the first night of the fair spins and blinks and serves up the worst, most compelling foods. Carnival barkers taunt heads of households; there are dreadlocked bananas to be won. It is a city of light, smell, and noise plugged into a field in Raleigh, discontinuous with everyday life.
My partner and I find ourselves standing outside a tent that holds the world’s largest horse. Fifty cents for a look. What to do? We go in. The horse is large. Is it the largest? Its face is tied to the opposite rail so it can see us with only one eye. An electronic pop song leaks through the tent and I can’t name it. I feel an acute sense of injustice for the horse, who turns his rear in my direction, lifts his tail, and farts.
The next morning is the market competition. The Exposition Center is hopping. There is a nursing sow with a dozen piglets set up for our viewing. There is a dairy cow you can milk for a dollar. I wonder if this is the biggest Ag party in the state.
Crowds come in. More than one cute girl walks by wearing a fitted camouflage t-shirt. More than one Romney/Ryan sticker is stuck to someone’s outerwear. The workers attending the ladies restroom are doggedly welcoming. “Come in here, baby, any open door,” they say. “We in here to keep it nice and neat.” There is a tip basket, and a sign taped to the mirror asks, What would this place look like without an attendant?
I find that the most relaxing spot in the whole fair is by the apples. There are winners and losers here, but you don’t have to perform your dominion over an apple in a show ring, which seems nice.
Photo courtesy the North Carolina State Fair.
Joel is wearing orange today. He comes out to show Kevin in his weight class.
The showmen make constant adjustments in feet positioning, cradling heads against hips. They often readjust their goat’s footing by picking up their heads to take the weight off their feet. One goat in Kevin’s class spends minutes suspended by his head.
The judge places Kevin fifth. He’s been judging goats all morning, he never rests. I worry he has decision fatigue, but he talks in detail about his likes and dislikes in the goats’ bodies. “He’s a little firmer in the way he handles. More pulled apart in the center of his ribs. I like how free and easy he moves off his rear two, but he’s the least correct in his loin edge,” things like that.
It’s time for Nike’s market class. Joel leads him out, they turn and walk, stop and flex. Joel has Nike’s head held straight up, his ears gathered in one hand like a bouquet. The judge comments on Nike’s body over the microphone, saying he’s cool to look at from the side, elevated through the chest and the front end, but raw and too flat-ribbed. He awards him reserve champion.
The goat that beat out Nike goes on to win grand champion of the whole show. He’s handled by a girl from Pasquotank County. He was born in Ohio. After the show, the girl waits in the ring for her goat to be drug tested. A fair official attends this process, waiting with a cup attached to a stick that he’ll use to catch the goat’s urine. “It could take hours,” he says.
Joel is nearby, waiting for an opportunity to get some feedback from the judge. He says he’s proud of how well Kevin did, and mentions that neither the winning goat nor the reserve champion were born in North Carolina.
On Saturday, the girl from Pasquotank County braces her Ohio-born goat in the show ring at the Sale of Champions. About one hundred and fifty people sit in bleachers on three sides, including Pat McCrory, who the auctioneer calls the soon-to-be governor of North Carolina.
At one end of McCrory’s entourage is a man from the Farm Bureau, who wins the goat for $6,500. He wins the reserve champion, too, and splits a bid with a Rockingham auction house for the truckload of remaining wethers, Nike and Kevin included. These purchases are symbolic, a show of support for our livestock youth. The goats will go to whichever meat processor won the bid on the 130+ animals.
During a break in the action on Friday, I went down to the goat pen. No one was there except Kevin. It was calm under the tent, away from the work of the fair.
Kevin scratched his back with his teeth. He butted heads with his neighbor. He showed interest in my camera but not in my notebook. I offered to pet him but he stayed back. He scratched the side of his body against the chain link fence, then crossed the pen and scratched the other side. It was maybe his last day as a goat with a name. He watched people walk by. He peed. Then he bent his front knees and shuffled them under his body. He lowered his weight onto his folded legs and let his eyes shut.