Judge Matts passes poultry passion on to kids

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Victory smile: No longer nervous, Katy Guyer, 10, of Voorheesville holds her blue ribbon along with her bird, Strawberry, just after leaving the ring, where she competed in Showmanship Tuesday morning at the Altamont Fair. She wants to be a veterinarian when she grows up.

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Judging with care, Jamie Matts, left, listens attentively, checklist in hand, as Katy Wilson, of Delmar, answers questions about her chicken, Betsy, during the “Showmanship” competition, part of the 4-H Poultry Show at the Altamont Fair on Tuesday morning.

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Reveling in her rooster, Claire Guyer, 14, of Voorheesville, has a front-row seat at the 4-H Poultry Show as she and her bird, Midnight, wait for their turn in the ring.  She notes that fresh eggs taste better than store-bought and plans to be a chef, cooking with organic produce.

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Dressed for success: Katy and Matt Wilson, of Delmar, wear matching white shirts and black bowties as they wait with their birds to compete in the Altamont Fair’s 4-H Poultry Show Tuesday morning. Matt’s bird, Caramel, prepares for a leap from his arms, but was soon retrieved.

ALTAMONT — The judge at the center of the sawdust ring is gentle. All around him, kids are holding their roosters and chickens.

It’s Tuesday morning, opening day for the annual Altamont Fair. The score of people clustered in the cow barn, sweet with the smell of hay, seem oblivious to the rain falling outside. All eyes are focused on the ring.

One by one, a bird and its keeper enter the ring to be judged on “showmanship,” demonstrating their knowledge of poultry.

Bryan Doolin, from Berne, stands with several siblings, each with a bird in hand. Bryan’s is a black pullet, a young hen that he has named Mrs. Bok. The hen quietly says her name, over and over, “Bok, bok, bok.”

Nearby stand Matt and Katy Wilson, from Delmar, each dressed in a crisp white shirt with a black bowtie. Matt’s bird, a Rhode Island red, is named Caramel for its color. Perched on his left arm, it looks down before making a leap with a flurry of wings to get to the ground. Katy helps him retrieve his bird.

Matt, who started raising his bird last year, said, “Even though I get tired of cleaning the cage, I don’t want him to go…He’ll be with me until he passes away.”

Katy holds her bird, Betsy, named for Betsy Ross, securely against her chest. It is a sexlink, a cross-bred chicken whose color at hatching is differentiated by sex.

Sitting in front-row seats on the ringside bleachers are the Guyer girls. Ten-year-old Katy Guyer is holding a porcelain d’Uccle named Strawberry. A d’Uccle  (pronounced due-clay) is a breed of bantam, or small chicken, first bred by Michael Van Gelder in the early 19th Century in the town of Uccle near Brussels in Belgium.

The small bird with beige feathers has tucked its head under her arm, as if hiding.

Her 14-year-old sister, Claire, sits beside her. Standing tall on her left leg is a big black australorp rooster, its feathers gleaming with iridescent hues.

Asked why her rooster was so docile, seeming to enjoy her affection, Claire shrugged.

“We had one rooster that was mean,” said Katy. “We named him ‘Roaster.’”

Roaster, of course, was eaten.

“We haven’t eaten any of ours,” said Claire of the birds they’ve raised.

Claire has named her bird Midnight for his jet black color.

Why did Katy name her beige bird Strawberry? “They’re my favorite fruit,” she said as her bird nestles further in her lap.

“These are the closest to the standard of perfection,” Claire said of why the sisters had picked these particular birds to compete at the Altamont Fair.

The Guyer girls and their mother have been raising birds for seven-and-a-half years.

“We wanted to have our own fresh eggs,” said Claire. They now have about 45 hens at their Voorheesville home and sell the eggs they don’t use themselves.

Their menagerie includes a pair of peacocks and a pair of Mandarin ducks as well as pheasants — a pair of red golden pheasants as well as Temminck’s Tragopan pheasants, which were originally from the Himalayas, they said.

The girls said caring for the birds is not arduous and their mother said they have the routine down to about an hour a day.

“You have to make sure they have fresh water and fresh food, and it’s clean,” said Claire.

The girls said the fresh eggs do taste different than the store-bought eggs.

“They look different, too,” said Claire. “Our birds eat bugs and grass, so the yolks are more orangey.”

Claire likes to cook, with or without fresh eggs, and would like to be a chef using organic foods. She entered her apple cinnamon chip cookies into the fair’s cookie competition.

“When I grow up, I want to be a veterinarian,” said Katy. “Because I love all kinds of animals and I want them all to be nice and healthy and taken care of.”

As they waited for their turn before the judge, Claire said she wasn’t nervous. “This is my fourth year,” she said, “so I’m not nervous anymore.”

“I’m nervous about how I do,” said Katy. “I hope I do well.”

The judge

Jamie Matts wears a blue, knee-length judge’s coat. On its back is his name along with a list of the three licenses he holds. What dominates the garment, though, is a large, elaborately embroidered black-and-white hen, based on a photograph he took of one of his own Cochins.

He opened the showmanship competition by telling the kids, “I want you to tell me everything you know about the bird. Start at the front when naming the parts…Any poultry knowledge you can give me, the better…This is fun; don’t be nervous…My goal is that you learn something.”

Matts, who works as a dental hygienist, sees a parallel between what he does as a vocation and what he does as an avocation — he erases fear.

Matts recalled when 3- and 4-year-old siblings came to his dentist’s office for a tooth cleaning and were “scared to death.” He explained things to them and made the procedure fun. The next time they came to the office, “They were fighting to see who could get in the chair first,” he said.

Growing up in Harpursville, in central New York, where he lives today, Matts, now 42, first started raising chickens when he was 14.

“I got involved showing at the Chenengo County Fair,” he said. “Three gentlemen took me under their wing…They were string men,” he said, explaining that meant they raised many breeds, and went from fair to fair with a string of birds, showing several hundred, which would pay for their feed all winter.

“These guys introduced me to one-day poultry shows,” he said, noting that the best birds are at such shows since top breeders often don’t want to subject their birds to the rigors of staying caged for a week at a fair.

Matts went to his first one-day show at Cobleskill when he was 18. He now heads that show, which will be holding its 50th anniversary this year. “Eight years ago,” Matts recalled, “The club said, if I didn’t take it over, they’d fold.” So he did.

The show is on the last Sunday in September and Matts encourages people to come to the free show to learn about various breeds of chickens.

“I try to get people to come and pick up show birds. It costs no more to feed them than backyard birds,” he said, noting most people think of a leghorn when they think of a chicken but there are over 300 types of fowl.

From his initial start of breeding with 18 bantams, Matts now raises 1,100 birds a year. He breeds Cochins, originally from China, because he likes their personality and temperament.

He lives on the 15 acres he bought after he got out of college and has converted an 1899 barn for his chickens. He ships birds — his business has increased through Facebook — by mail all over the country.

Matts loves caring for his chickens. “When you get home from work and take care of the birds, your stress is gone,” he said.

He also loves judging. He said of the string men, “The three old-timers encouraged me to become a judge and get licensed.”

Matts has an American Poultry Association license, an American Bantam Association license, and a Bantam Duck license. Each involved an apprenticeship program as well as three different tests — in home, at a show room, and in a closed room.

Shows at places as far-flung as Oregon, California, and Vancouver have paid his way to judge there. This year, Matts is judging at 16 different fairs.

He has judged at the Altamont Fair for the past five years. “I’ve watched a lot of those kids grow up,” he said. Indeed, he knows the kids by name and greets them as they enter the ring. He was pleased that more entered this year. “Usually, there are around 15,” he said. “This year, there were 22.”

Eleven-year-old Jacob Berben won the Best of Show with his mille fleur d’Uccle. “Mille fleur” is French for “a thousand flowers,” after the d’Uccle’s most common color variation, which is variegated.

Matts was 16 when he won his first Best of Show for a pair of white rock frizzles at the Chenengo County Fair. He still savors the thrill.

Being in the ring as a competitor has informed his judging style. He likes to be approachable.

On Tuesday, he patiently took time with each competitor, attentively listening to their answers, and filling in with the information they missed.

When it was Katy Guyer’s turn in the ring, and she stood, holding her bird, Strawberry, to name its parts, Matts knelt in the sawdust so that his eyes were on a level with hers. He leaned in to listen as she spoke softly.

“As you get older,” he said, explaining to her things she would learn in the future.

When her part was over, Katy gently stroked the back of her bird. “You’ve been a good boy,” she said.

Her face lit up with a broad smile when she was handed a blue ribbon.

“I think I did OK,” she said.

 “Poultry has given me so much,” Matts said on Tuesday evening. “My hope at every fair is some other child takes the bug like I did.”