HENDERSON — As Kadee Wilkins-Clark and her fellow Longview High School students waited Tuesday for the first event of the Harvest Festival & Livestock Show, she couldn’t help but talk about her passion for pigs.

Kadee, 14, and other East Texas high school students came to the Rusk County Youth Expo Center in Henderson for this year’s festival, which was moved from Longview because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is part of life,” she said of the festival, which showcases students’ ag projects and continues through Saturday. “It’s something that we all love to do. ”

Kadee chatted with her sisters, Kacee, 15, and Kenzee, 11, while they waited to show their chickens. The students were excited for the different events involving other animals such as rabbits, hogs, lambs, goats and heifers.

“Our animals are more than animals to all of us,” Kacee said. “My steer, we’re best friends. He’s my baby.” She also talked about how difficult it will be to sell the steer.

“I call my pig a 300-pound dog,” Kadee said. “I’ve trained him. They’re more than just farm animals.”

For these students, joining FFA and raising animals is more than a hobby.

“What’s helped me most in this past year is getting to see my older sister with her pigs because that’s how we got started in FFA,” Kadee said. “Kacee got a second chance with her life, in general, with a pig. I helped her work with her first and second pigs, and I fell in love with pigs.”

“I don’t think I would be alive if my ag teacher, Trevor King, didn’t help me show my pig that year,” Kacee said. “I had bad, bad depression. That pig, just that program, helped save my life.”

Longview ag science teacher Braylon Session said the festival is what he and his students work toward all year.

He said he is honored to help his students through the process.

“We teach these kids how to invest their time, their money, their hard work, dedication and everything into these projects,” Session said. “To see them be able to work their butts off and be able to actually show (their animals), you see the product of their toil.”

He added that it’s tough with the COVID-19 shutdowns and how ag events have been affected, but it’s important for the students to work through it.

“These kids learn the joys and discomforts of agricultural life,” Session said.

For Longview High student Daja Boyd, 17, shows such as the Harvest Festival are a great way to socialize.

“I get to meet new people, and I make long-lasting friendships,” said Boyd, who also is involved in ROTC and hopes to enlist in the U.S. Army and then attend Texas A&M University to study agribusiness.

The festival has about 90% of the normal number of exhibitors, said event Treasurer Shannon Fell. The festival is taking precautions with social distancing, masks and more.

“For the kids, it’s no different than school,” Fell said.

Unlike past years, no Saturday night meal is scheduled because of safety precautions.

The Harvest Festival & Livestock Show, in its 46th year, aims to encourage and support youth in East Texas through agriculture and scholarships.

When scholarships started in 1975, the first one was for $250. Now, the festival grants about $64,000 in scholarships, Fell said.

She noted that her scholarship in 1983 was for about $400.

“It paid for books,” Fell said, laughing. “I was excited.”

The Harvest festival board is starting a program for students pursuing a masters program in college, Fell said. Those applicants do not need to go into an agriculture-related program in college to qualify.

Courtney Stern is a public safety reporter covering a wide range of topics. She grew up in Baltimore and later earned a journalism degree from the University of Miami. Stern moved to East Texas from Iowa with her husband and two dogs, Pebbles and Bam Bam.