When Nipomo FFA chapter member and sheep breeder Emily Ward learned that the 2020 Santa Barbara County Fair was canceled due to COVID-19, she opted not to participate in the virtual auction that was held in June, but she plans to participate in a second one slated for this summer. 

It's still too early to determine if the 2021 County Fair, slated for July 14 to July 18, will happen, but a virtual auction already is in the works, according to Kevin Merrill, who sits on the fair's board of directors. 

"We're just putting it out there now, trying to get an idea of how many kids will participate," Merrill said. "We want to make sure that the kids who have an animal participate and there's some way of being able to sell those." 

Each year, local FFA and 4-H youths have the opportunity to sell livestock during a three-day event at the annual fair. FFA and 4-H members typically work to arrange potential buyers and processing well before the auction. On average, about 2,000 animals are sold during the auction. 

Last year, however, participants had to pivot to a virtual auction in place of the 2020 County Fair, with about three weeks to prepare. About 300 animals were sold during that auction. 

Still, the virtual auction "definitely gave kids another avenue to sell their animals that they wouldn't normally have," said Rebecca Barks, former president of the Santa Maria Fairpark Foundation board of directors. 

Auction guidelines will be available sometime this month, according to the Fairpark's website.

Merrill anticipates this year's auction will operate in a similar way as last year's, when pictures, videos and other information on the animals were uploaded to a cloud-based service. 

Only large livestock, including market beef, swine, sheep and goats, and replacement heifers will be sold. The auction will not include poultry, rabbits, cavies, livestock breeding animals or showmanship. 

Additionally, still exhibit requirements for the livestock exhibitors have been removed and the Quality Assurance and Ethics Awareness Training program remains a requirement. 

While organizers intend on keeping the auction a mainstay, making it viable has become more of a challenge during the pandemic. 

The fair isn't commercialized like other major events in the area and relies on sponsorships from local, small companies such as agricultural supply stores and dealerships, which have also been negatively impacted by the pandemic, according to Barks. 

Merrill is counting on the community to step up with financial support, which is needed to help cover the costs of the auction, even if the fair is canceled again. The fair accounts for 60% of the Fairpark's annual budget, although Merrill said staff have found creative ways to try and make up for the loss, such as the Festival of Lights held in December. 

"We hate to lose [the auction] because of the interaction between families who've done it for a long time," Merrill said. "That's the thing you miss, but we don't have that luxury anymore." 

Ward, 15, who has been breeding sheep for at least seven years, attended auctions and livestock shows throughout the state in previous years, which helped her build a network of potential clientele and personal relationships. 

The pandemic, however, limited those social interactions and, as a result, her sheep husbandry.  

After the 2020 fair was canceled, she said she lost interest. 

"Not being able to go to the fair, it kind of took my drive and I didn't want to do anything with the sheep for a little bit," Ward said.

However, Ward jumped in again shortly after last year's fair was supposed to be held, attending livestock shows. This month, she helped to sell some sheep in Turlock. 

Now, Ward has a barn full of sheep she is preparing for future livestock shows.

The experience has pushed Ward to be more independent, and with the help of a local organizer, she was able to arrange a private livestock show alongside a group of cohorts.

Last year's fair cancellation and auction change gave students, such as Ward, a real-life lesson in pivoting on short notice, according to Barks. 

"Nobody is going to come in and save you," she said. "You've got to do this on your own."