The Florida Strawberry Festival’s annual Lamb contests are some of the most unique agriculture shows in Florida.
The Patterson Co. Livestock Arena is filled with laughing guests every year as local youth participate in a Lamb Costume Contest, the Lamb Jumping Contest, the Lamb Showmanship Contest and the Lamb Show.
“Honestly I think all of the livestock shows are important to showcase to the public how well these animals are taken care of,” chairman Rhonda Burnett said. “Lots of animal agriculture gets a bad rap by people that have no idea what they’re talking about. Patrons, I think, are sometimes shocked when they talk to the kids about their project, whether its lamb, berries, steer or anything else, and they find how educated and passionate our youth are.”
The lamb shows began in the early 90s and have since grown into beloved events. Jim Jeffries, Festival board member, was there when it all began. They thought about adding a market sale, but decided against it because of the success of the pig and steer sales at the same festival. They feared detracting from the other sales so they came up with the idea of adding a show to the lineup.
“It wasn’t long after the early event that they added the other lamb contests to the schedule,” Jeffries said. “The Jumping Contest is really popular. They have a high jump, which is only about a foot tall of course. Then they have the costume contest. It really challenges kids and it’s amazing what they come up with.”
The jumping contests are one of the more lighthearted agriculture shows at the festival. You can see youth take their lambs around the ring and have them attempt to make mild jumps. It doesn’t take long to suss out who has practiced at home and who is winging it with their fluffy companions.
Burnett said working with lambs is one of the best ways for a youth that is interested in agriculture to dip their toes in the industry. She said the animals are “more manageable” and children can start younger and still be able to handle the fluffy creatures in the ring.
Another benefit is the rigorous judging requirements for the Lamb Showmanship. There are so many intricacies to the show it ultimately makes phenomenal leaders in the ring. The committee does its best to find qualified judges from across the state, but with sheep not being a major industry here they sometimes head up into Georgia to find the perfect match for the contest. After all, the festival wants the youth to learn meaningful lessons based on the feedback from those who judge the competitions.
“If they can learn to show a sheep when they’re young, they can do anything,” Burnett said. “There are so many more ‘rules,’ if they can learn that they can show anything. The ewes are sweet and a great place to start with kids.”
What draws in crowds from across the state, however, is the unique and often hilarious Lamb Costume Contest.
You never know what you’ll see when you gather around the arena for the costume show. Last year children dressed their lambs up as airplanes, dragons and a Dalmatian. One young student dressed up as a baker and had her lamb pull a giant cake around the arena. As it approached the judges the cake began to move and her little sister popped out of the decadent dessert.
Judges have quite a challenge selecting winners from the sometimes 30-40 contestants in the Best Overall, Most Elegant, Most Colorful, Most Creative, Funniest and Most Original categories. after the hordes of children wrangle their elaborately decorated sheep into the ring they slowly walk them around, highlighting every nuance of the outfit for the crowd and ecstatic judges.
The contestants range from five years old to 18 years old and many make it a tradition to come back every year with more creative and innovative designs. She said as a committee they are always excited when they see names pop up from the year before because they know they’re going to bring their A-game. It’s bittersweet in a way, as Burnett said they’ve watched generations grow up and move on to mentoring others.
She became involved with the show after her daughter, who was age eight at the time, began participating. Burnett educated herself on the process of raising and showing sheep and soon her entire family became heavily invested in the program. It wasn’t long before she was approached to take over. Her daughter is now 31, but Burnett continues to pour into the program.
“One year I remember the contestant was Cinderella and she had her horses and pumpkin carriage,” Burnett said. “The contestant had their two sheep be the horses and they pulled the pumpkin. A couple years ago we had a Roman soldier and the sheep was a horse pulling a chariot. Their little sister was dressed up like a Roman goddess and rode in the chariot. You never know what you’ll see.”
The Lamb Jumping Contests is on March 4 at 2:30 p.m. The costume contest is the same day at 7 p.m. The Lamb Showmanship competition is March 5 at 3 p.m. and the Lamb Show is at 5 p.m.