INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — At a time of morning when many Hoosiers planning a day at the Indiana State Fair may have just been waking up, the Verhaeghe children were already alert, dressed for competition and seeing to their market lambs.
Aug. 1 may have been the fair’s opening day to the general public, but competitors like the Verhaeghes had to set up in livestock barns before then. Working around a makeshift pantry of human snacks and a small microwave and fridge in one of their few allotted pens, Kelsey Verhaeghe, 16, was finishing filling long metal troughs with sheep feed while her sister, Kaleigh, 10, and a friend set off elsewhere for a few minutes.
The girls and their brother Klay, 14, were showing a variety of livestock at this year’s state fair. They have three other siblings, either too young or old for 4-H. They are the children of Jeff and Dana Verhaeghe.
The kids are the fourth generation of farmers on their dad’s side of the family; Kelsey said their mom’s side of the family have been farming a long time, too.
Verhaeghe Grain & Livestock is in Argos, Ind. Kelsey said her dad became interested in raising sheep when he was in middle school – and his flock has built since then. Or, rather, it’s now their flock.
"Sheep has been our life, really," she explained, adding they travel and show at other fairs, as well as at the national level. "I just have a passion for the sheep; something about them …"
The family raises a variety of breeds, including Hampshire, Southdown, Dorset and Whiteface and Blackface crosses. And the sheep don’t lack for four-footed friends – the Verhaeghes also raise dairy cattle, horses, pigs and goats, among other livestock, as well as growing crops.
Shortly after Kelsey took a call to head off to the pig barn to check on something, Kaleigh returned to keep an eye on their eight lambs, getting in the pen to wrangle a couple back into their rightful eating places as she talked about the business side of raising and showing 4-H animals.
Working with the animals far enough ahead of time does much toward success in the show ring, she pointed out. She likes to have at least three weeks to work with a lamb before a show; she remembered having to switch to another animal about a week before a show once and said how difficult it was when exhibition time came.
Different breeds, she observed, exhibit different levels of intelligence, which also plays into how easy or hard it is to work with a lamb prior to competition. Some just take longer to train.
"If you work hard, you can have fun," Kaleigh said of raising 4-H animals. She added while she likes the sheep, she used to show a dairy cow but it became too expensive – the revenue she received from it was not enough to cover input costs. Sheep are more economical for her to show.
Both sisters said they would like to stay in livestock farming after they finish school, carrying on the family tradition.