Ashlyn Real has lofty aspirations for life beyond high school.
The Conroe High School senior and president of the Future Farmers of America chapter at the school is headed to Blinn College in Brenham and plans to study agriculture economics. Entering her final semester as a Tiger, Real was excited to present her livestock at events like Rodeo Houston and the Montgomery County Fair. Then came the bad news.
Those livestock events were canceled due to the COVID-19 outbreak, and Real and countless other FFA students from around the area were left without their traditional avenue to raise funds through showings and sales.
“Within the FFA, I’ve shown pigs and cattle and done (career and leadership development) events,” Real said. “So my life was basically jam-packed from the moment I woke up to the moment I went to sleep. … (After the cancellations), I was angry, I was upset, and I went through the normal motions of grieving process that my senior year was now over. Yes, it does stink that the year didn’t go the way it was planned, but I truly believe God has a much bigger plan for us.”
The cancellations may have been a roadblock, but not an entirely impassable one
Instead of reeling in the disappointment of the setback, Real jumped into action through an online service called Stock Show Auctions. The online platform, which arose out of Stephenville, Texas, was created to assist FFA students like Real amidst the mass cancellation of junior livestock shows.
According to its website, Stock Show Auctions was created and implemented by a team of auctioneers, teachers and business people with a passion for agriculture.
“It’s been a wonderful opportunity for the kids in Montgomery County, Houston and Austin,” said Real, who started showing livestock in sixth grade and quickly developed a passion that has carried on through her high school years. “It was an effort for us to make money back, and it turned out very well for me. I was able to recoup some of the money, which will go back into my college fund in hopes of buying textbooks and getting everything I need.”
Livestock event organizers have also stepped up to the plate to provide financial assistance. The Montgomery County Fair Association, for example, has developed a Junior Exhibitor Stipend, made possible by major sponsors and a commitment from the Fair Association of up to $150,000. Donations from the community are welcome and can be made at mcfa.org.
While her senior year hasn’t gone as planned, Real has been able to persevere and remains hopeful.
“I’ve been using this time to plan for my next chapter of life, getting ready to go to college and try to figure out what my next step is going to be,” she said. “I’ve been trying to keep myself busy with positive things and moving forward.”
Rustic Farm, a horsemanship training facility in Conroe, has previously been involved in community support efforts, but that has typically come during bouts against natural disasters, such as Hurricane Harvey a couple of years ago.
The coronavirus outbreak brought a different kind of opponent to the ring. Rustic Farm owner and trainer Andrew Hilgers wanted to do something for the local FFA students who had their livestock showing opportunities shut down.
His business is now offering a $2,000 scholarship, which he envisions as an annual occurrence.
“We already had connections with some people, and everybody got uprooted from this, and we just wanted to pitch something together to give at least one kid a scholarship to help pay for next year’s animal or school,” Hilgers said. “It was just spur-of-the-moment — might as well do it. It seemed like no one else was stepping up to do much of anything at the time we were getting it together. Obviously, that’s changed now with a couple places doing it.”
Donations and fundraising
The Rustic Farm Livestock Scholarship is accepting donations through a gofundme.com page that can be found by searching for it by name. Hilgers has also planned a barbecue plate sale from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. on May 3 at Conroe Feed Supply at 100 S. Main Street. Plates will be sold for $8 and include a pulled pork sandwich, chips and drink.
The scholarship will be given a student who was entered into one of the livestock shows. They must submit a video or essay answering one of the following questions: How does ranching benefit the community? What have you learned from raising livestock? How have these experiences shaped your goals for the future?
Videos and essays can be submitted to email@example.com by April 30, and Hilgers will select the winner.
“It’s important for us because we like giving back to the community,” Hilgers said. “We’re trying to help out where we can and with what we can. We know a lot of people that are in the shows industry and stuff like that, this is rough for them. It’s also rough for the parents have kids in it because they were relying on their kids getting something this year.”