Neil Bowman first start showing livestock at the N.C. State Fair back in 1983, when he was still a young boy from King, N.C.
But what he treasures about his years of bringing his best animals to the fair are not the ribbons he won. Instead, he savors the lasting friendships he has made and the important lessons that he has learned.
“If you want to sum up what’s important about showing livestock, I can’t tell you how many ribbons or banners I won,” he says. “But I can tell you about the friends that I met through the livestock barns. They’re invaluable. They’re priceless. That’s what’s important.”
And that’s part of what drives Bowman, a 1996 graduate of NC State, in his new role this year as the general livestock superintendent for the fair. What that means is that Bowman oversees the people who run the various livestock shows, from cows to sheep to goats, that run throughout the fair.
The best part of the job, he says, is the chance to work with kids who are doing what he did several years ago.
“Junior programs are one of the backbones of the fair,” Bowman says. “They have the opportunity to learn things, such as how to raise up an animal, how to evaluate livestock, what are the quality points to look for, what is the work ethic required.”
Bowman says the experience children get showing animals at the fair helps them learn important lessons in leadership, responsibility and time management.
“A lot of these kids, they pick their animal for that project to peak in October (for the fair), but they’re picking them out several months ahead of time,” he says. “They’re working with them on a routine basis.”
When the fair is not in town, Bowman is director of livestock marketing for the N.C. Department of Agriculture. But when the fair is in town, Bowman’s work days go into overdrive. It’s not uncommon for him to not leave work until after midnight and then be back at the fair by 4 a.m.
That’s because Bowman has a lot of people and animals to take care of this week. “I’m the one who works to coordinate a lot of the ground stuff, as far as making sure all the logistics are taken care of, that we’ve got somewhere to put the trailers, that we’ve got what we need in in the barn in the way of bedding, that those guys have what they need for their shows,” he says. “If there are any incidents they need a ruling on, I’m the one they call on.”
The people who Bowman deals with at the fair are there for business reasons. They are showing their livestock as a way to promote what they are raising. It’s advertising for their business, raising cattle, goats or sheep. So they go to a lot of effort to make sure their livestock shows well.
“Lots of these folks start at four or five in the morning, getting their animals washed and fit to present them as best they can,” Bowman says.
The judges are looking for structural soundness (how well their joints work), rib capacity (their ability to take on feed) and muscle shape — as well as the ability to “put that together in an attractive package,” as Bowman says.
In essence, that’s what Bowman is trying to do — put all the people and livestock together in a way that works. He says that’s gotten tougher as the number of livestock being exhibited has increased in recent years. He also says the fair has to adjust to changes in the industry, such as improved genetics in livestock.
“We’ve got to continue to try to improve,” he says. “Staying at the status quo doesn’t keep us competitive in the world market place.”