Two weeks and a day before fair time in Missoula, and it’s crunch time for 4-H'ers like Natalie Arnott.
“The fair here is my summer,” Arnott said last week. “This is all I do. Pretty much from Oct. 1, which is when your 4-H year starts, you are jam-packed until the fair in August.”
As usual, she adds, “I love it.”
That seems to be the attitude Arnott has for just about anything with four legs and needing her attention, though Kobe, the Nigerian goat in the back corral, does test her mettle.
Arnott is 18 and a June graduate of Big Sky High School, which is a quick lope on her trusty mare Cocoa from the Arnott home on Tower Street. The Missoula Agriculture Center that has been a second home to Arnott and her family is only a bit farther.
Arnott has a lot on her plate and on her mind as a 4-H life that began before she was old enough to walk winds down.
For the last time at the Western Montana Fair, she’ll prep, primp and show Frannie, her two-time grand champion dairy cow; Loretta, her 3-year-old roan cow and Loretta’s calf Marlo, born May 1, and Ethel, Arnott’s new yellow heifer. That’s just the bovine contingent.
Arnott will show Cocoa, the do-everything 12-year-old quarter horse, under halter and saddle at the 4-H horse show on Saturday and in the open show Aug. 6, the Sunday before the fair begins.
And don’t forget Winston, her market pig. That’s not to mention the petting zoo Arnott takes to grand openings, school fun days and to summer classes taught by her mom, Cindy, a Big Sky special education teacher. The zoo’s going to the fair, too. Arnott’s Future Farmers of America mates always lend a hand with that operation because, well, there’s just so many hours in fair week.
Space doesn’t allow us to get into obligations at the 4H Café and the FFA taco booth. Suffice it to say for Arnott the fair spills into the following week.
“If you’re an FFA officer, Monday morning at 6 you have to go clean out the taco booth — and you’ve got a week of grease in there,” she said cheerily.
In the meantime Arnott and a friend keep taking on haying jobs Natalie doesn’t really have time for, her mom said. Two weeks ago the Arnotts were in Bozeman, where Natalie’s horse judging team (coached by Cindy) placed first at the Montana 4-H Congress. Natalie took individual honors.
It means she and teammates Kyle Glenn of Big Sky, McKenna Quirk of Hellgate and Kyla Andres of Big Sky will have a winter focus — the national 4-H judging competition in January at the Denver Western Stock Show. But before that Arnott, Glenn and Big Sky senior Zac Zimmerman earned in May a trip to Indianapolis at the end of October for the same judging competition at the FFA nationals.
And before that, Arnott will enter Montana State University in Bozeman, where her first year of college is paid for thanks to all the 4-H and FFA scholarships she’s piled up. She’ll take pre-veterinarian classes with designs on landing a spot in Washington State University's esteemed veterinary medicine program.
“I want to come back to Montana to practice in rural counties that really don’t have a lot of vets,” she said.
In preparing a speech on the decline of rural vets and what to do about it, Arnott learned about the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program that pays up to $25,000 a year toward the school loans of veterinarians who agree to serve three years in a “designated veterinarian shortage situation.”
“Finding that was cool,” she said, “because I can now tell other people about it.”
Arnott turned 18 in March but because the cutoff date to turn 19 is Oct. 1, she could stay in 4-H another year. To understand her passion for farm animals, listen to why she probably won’t:
“I’m hoping to get an internship for a pig farm in Indiana.”
The bus stopped for a tour of Fair Oaks Farm on the way to the national FFA convention in Louisville two years ago, and Arnott was hooked.
“That’s all I’ve heard about for two years,” Cindy Arnott quipped.
Fair Oaks, an hour north of Indianapolis, has 2,000 breeding sows having up to three litters a year. It’s a tourist facility, so if she lands the internship Arnott’s job next summer would be to educate the public on the breeding and farrowing processes of pigs and how a big operation like Fair Oaks works.
“I love pigs,” she said. “Pigs have such goofy personalities.”
Arnott has raised six breeding sows since her freshman year.
“The process to picking which boar to breed the sows to, caring for them during gestation and then the birthing process is my favorite part, by far, of everything,” she said. “We spend so many hours in the farrowing barn every spring. I don’t know what it is about it. It’s just something that I love to do.”
Her senior project was almost a no-brainer. Arnott organized the first live pig auction at the Missoula County Public Schools’ Agriculture Center.
“We only auctioned 15 and the farm made an extra $1,500 by doing a live auction,” Cindy Arnott said.
“I was lucky enough to where I got a project that I would have done anyways,” said her daughter. “I loved doing that. I had to make a flier and a Facebook page. It was just a ton of fun.”
Arnott qualified for the national 4-H horse judging competition in Denver for the first time, but she’s come out on top of the state FFA judging three years in a row.
It helps, she said, to have grown up showing horses and knowing what a judge looks for. In pleasure and Hunter Under Saddle riding classes, for instance, “you’re looking strictly at the animal,” Arnott said. “Are they responsive to the rider’s cues? Do they track well, so if they’re doing a longer gait does their back foot land in the hoofprint of their front foot on the other side?”
“Cut” is a bad word in horse judging. It’s the points deducted from a maximum of 50 when the rankings of a class are compared, and from the reasoning phase, when contestants tell the judge in under two minutes each why they judged as they did.
Out of 300 points in six classes in Bozeman, Arnott dropped just 12 points in the judging phase and nine in reasoning for a total of 279. Nobody scored more.
Her life with large domestic animals will continue, but Arnott looks back with joy on what a world of 4-H, FFA and a family with like passions has provided. She has been to national FFA conventions in Louisville and Indianapolis, which include general sessions where, she said, “60,000 people who dress the same as you are in one arena for the same purpose. There’s no feeling like it.”
She went to Washington, D.C., for a leadership conference, and has honed her speaking skills to a professional level. Her best friend lives in Illinois.
“When else in your life are you going to be able to take a school bus from Missoula to Louisville, Kentucky?” Arnott asked. “It presents travel opportunities but also just the friendships that you make are never-ending. It’s just been incredible.”