Instead of going to slumber parties or playing dolls with her friends, 8-year-old Ashtin Blinn has been hard at work for months taking care of the heifer she bought with her own money in November. She feeds the animal, cleans up after it and until recently was preparing to show it at the Kern County Fair.
But all the money and effort Ashtin has spent raising the animal might be wasted.
A state regulation that sets age limits for showing large animals was misintepreted by the livestock department of the Kern County Fair. While children ages 5 to 8 (by Jan. 1) can show small animals, like rabbits and poultry, they are not allowed, by state regulations, to show large animals, like cattle.
Before the local fair realized its mistake, younger children briefly were given the go-ahead to show large animals. Now, about 100 young livestock exhibitors like Blinn are wondering if they'll be able to participate in the fair at all.
"She's disappointed," said Cheryl Blinn, Ashtin's mother. "After telling her 'Good news! You'll be old enough' ... we (now) tell her Mommy and Daddy are doing everything we can" to let her show her heifer.
While organizations like 4-H, Future Farmers of America and Grange have their own rules on who can show what, many competitors are not affilited with a group and show animals as "independent exhibitors." The state sets guidelines for those competitors but allows each county to include some of their own.
From the state's rules: "Fairs may create 'Local Rules' that may be stricter than the State Rules but may not circumvent the State Rules."
But according to Kern County Fair livestock supervisor Katie Stotler, that language hasn't always been clear. Previously, it was more ambiguous, and Stotler didn't know that by lowering the age limit to 5, she was going against the California Department of Food & Agriculture, which established the rules.
"They said we could not do that," Stotler said of the California Exposition & State Fair board. "We're working very hard to do something that we hope will accommodate them, at least for this year. We hope to have an answer by Friday."
By the time Stotler was made aware of the misinterpretation in early April, the rule books had already been printed though not yet distributed. Stotler and her team printed the state's letter correcting the error and inserted them in the rule books, which were made available to the public in mid-April.
The Blinns did not receive that correction in any of the three rule books they picked up, Cheryl Blinn said. They only learned of the rule change when Cheryl Blinn went into the fair office earlier this week.
"I don't know when I would have known about it if I hadn't gone in," Blinn said.
The steers and heifers shown at livestock competitions are typically born in the spring and bought in October, November or December the year before the fair, Cheryl Blinn explained. Because of that, the people showing cattle don't have the option to wait to buy them until the rule books are out in the spring. They have to take that risk, she said.
Ashtin Blinn and her family traveled to Wyoming to buy her heifer for $1,325 and has spent about $400 a month feeding it, her mother said. She worked with local businesses to earn money for the animal's maintenance. Not showing means Ashtin can't sell the heifer at the fair, where she'd make more money than if she sold it elsewhere.
"It's not just about the money," said Cheryl Blinn, whose other daughter, 10-year-old Addison, also competes. "It takes up a lot of (the kids') time. They've made sacrifices. How are they going to make it up to them?"
Blinn has a few suggestions for compromise between the county and state, like letting it go this one year or allowing a younger child to show if they're accompanied by an older kid.
The Blinns are hoping that, whatever solution comes at the end of the week, their daughter, who is just one year shy of competing age, will be allowed to show the heifer she's worked so hard on.
The ultimate kicker? Ashtin will turn 9 by the time the fair starts in September.