Shannon McKinnon never expected her time showing cattle as a 4H participant would win her a public speaking competition. But she also never expected to lose her calf in a devastating fire.
The 12-year-old is a student at Alberton Elementary. The school is just a short drive along the Dock Road from the dairy farm owned by Kent and Diane Rennie.
The Rennies lent Shannon a calf for last year's Prince County Exhibition. The calf was named Opa, or at least it was until the first day Shannon arrived in the barn.
"I nicknamed her Sugar, because the farmer told us if we had sugar in our hand they would come over better. We did it with a couple of others, but she nearly ate my fingers off." That began a relationship that lasted through the spring and summer of 2013. At least twice a week Shannon would visit the farm getting Sugar groomed and trained to be in the show ring.
Sugar was ready for the show, but there was a heavy rain on exhibition day. It was so loud on the metal roof the calf was spooked and buried its head in Shannon's chest when the judges were watching.
The pair came third out of three competitors.
After the exhibition Shannon didn't forget about Sugar. She kept visiting the farm and taking care of her calf until November 1. That day she could hear fire trucks roaring by the school all day.
When Shannon's mom Lynne, a local United Church minister, picked her up she learned why the fire fighters were so busy.
"She said the farm was on fire, it hit me like a rock."
Fire consumed the 50-year-old dairy barns on the Rennie's farm. Shannon's mom was allowed inside the police and fire lines to help Kent and Diane Rennie.
"And she came back and told me that only six cows lived, and they were just the milkers," said Shannon. "So all of the other ones died including Opa (Sugar)."
Shannon knew she wanted to do something to help people understand the bond she developed with her calf, and that
'She said the farm was on fire, it hit me like a rock.' Shannon McKinnon
farmers also have that connection. So this spring she told her story during the 4H public speaking competition, a personal story of loss that won the top prize and left many in the crowd in tears.
"Just to go back to the time of fire, and to go back to the fact that other people were impacted by the loss of the animals," said Diane Rennie. "And the fact that Shannon is looking forward with hope as we are to rebuild and start our farming operation again."
Shannon says her winning speech was also designed to let the public know farmers care about their livestock.
"We're just raising them so we can supply milk, but there's more than that," explains Shannon. "There's a connection between the person and the cow."
Shannon says she will continue to show cattle for 4H. The Rennies are in the midst of designing and building a new barn that will use the latest high tech equipment to milk the cattle and keep them comfortable. Kent Rennie said he is currently looking around the Maritimes to purchase a milking herd to replace the cows lost in the fire.