ESBON — Nine-year-old Whitley Frost won grand champion with a photograph he entered in the Jewell County Fair, but it was a snapshot his mother took of him that really drew people's attention.

After the livestock sale July 19, Natalie Frost, of rural Esbon, posted on Facebook an album of photos she took of her three children participating in fair events. Among those pictures was one showing her oldest son's tearful goodbye to his reserve champion steer, Bandit.  

Chan Stowell, the family's insurance agent, reposted the photo of Whitley and Bandit.

"This is the son of some great friends of mine," Stowell wrote. "If you or your family has ever shown livestock, you probably know which day of the fair this is for him. This picture tells me that he put the amount of time into this project that he should have. As Coach Snyder says ... 'the greater the investment, the greater the loss.' At 49 I still remember 'the last moments.' "

To Natalie, the photograph was an honest portrayal of part of the process.

"Anybody who has ever shown livestock has this exact same picture," she said. "That picture was innocent. I wanted him to be able to look back on it when he's older. A lot of our friends understand the picture." 

She also provided the Journal with a photo that shows another part of the process — Whitley's beaming smile after he showed Bandit in June at the Hill City Spring Livestock Show.

Learning of life

Stowell's photo of a crying Whitley prompted immediate reaction on Facebook. As of Thursday, the photo had been shared 7,488 times. While the vast majority of the reactions were positive or sad, the photo also drew more than 100 angry emojis and several harshly critical comments from people who called Natalie names  and asserted her son would be scarred for life by the trauma of losing the steer.

"I received an array of private messages," Natalie Frost said. "They said it was child abuse, that I was a horrible mom. I never replied to a single comment."

Frost said the commenters don't understand the way of life that she and her husband, Wayne, are teaching their children. Many of them haven't been exposed to agriculture or what it takes to produce the meat and grain that feed the world.

"I grew up with this lifestyle — many of my friends grew up with this lifestyle — and every single one of us wanted it for our kids," she said. "If you're a vegetarian or vegan, that's great. It doesn't bother me. Just don't bash me for the way I'm living my life and the way I'm raising my kids."

Far from being abused,  Frost said Whitley is learning through his 4-H animal husbandry projects how to work hard and be thorough, dependable, responsible and caring. He's also gaining an understanding of life and death. She said Whitley has known what the steer's fate would be from the beginning.

"I told him, 'We fed this steer and took care of him for nine to 10 months, and now it's his turn to take care of us,'" Frost said.

Bandit, and Whitley's grand champion steer, Chip, were both part of a premium-only sale following the fair competition. The two steers, as well as two pigs he showed, were slaughtered. The Frosts will keep the meat from one steer and one pig and two neighbor families will split the meat from the other two animals.

Kind-hearted boy

Frost said Whitley is "kind hearted," and his goodbye to his pigs last year was even more heart-wrenching, as he stood waving at the trailer they were in until it disappeared out of the fairgrounds.

After spending five hours a day caring for an animal, she said, it is sad to say goodbye because "these kids care about their animals." It's also sad to return home to an empty barn. 

"I can remember crying. I remember my siblings being upset," she said. "It's sad, but that's life. It's how we make a living."

When the responsibility of caring for animals is over, the family has time for other things — like trips to the pool, she said.

She said the premiums Whitley received for this year's animals will cover the cost of their feed and pay for next year's animals. Any extra goes into college savings.

It's what he wants

Whitley's 6-year-old brother, Blaine, showed a bucket calf and a pig. His 3-year-old sister, Devyn, showed a bucket calf, a pig and a goat. Frost said the next day, the family traveled to Hoxie so the kids could see their cousins show their animals in the Sheridan County Fair, just as their cousins had come to see them.

She said Whitley's goal for next year is to take a steer to the Kansas State Fair.

"He's never complained about it, and it's what he wants to do," she said. "He's already said he wants to do it again next year."