The Pet Tree House - Where Pets Are Family Too : Swine for Sale - How Kids’ Livestock Shows Became a Cutthroat and Expensive Business

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Swine for Sale - How Kids’ Livestock Shows Became a Cutthroat and Expensive Business

Family farmers are struggling in the new world of livestock shows, where the best animals are bought online.

Tiffany LaRue, 17, had not been lucky with her pigs this year. One had its placenta detach, killing the embryos. Another was supposed to have been pregnant when they bought her, but wasn’t. Another, LaRue said, just simply didn’t take.

That left LaRue with one option if she wanted to show a pig at the West Virginia State Fair this year: Buy one from the pig farm down the road. “By that time, it was so late that all we could get were these,” she said, pointing at two hogs sleeping on shavings. One russet brown and one black, Fire and Brimstone, she named them.

Still, LaRue and her younger brother Levi took care of their hogs as they’d been taught how in 4-H and Future Farmers of America, walking them every day to build muscle, bathing and carefully measuring their feed. But she knew they were doomed to lose, when other kids could scour the country for the best pigs money could buy.

The kids’ frustration isn’t just the underdog’s lament, it also reveals a lot about how farming has changed, and junior livestock competitions along with it. The family farm of the American imagination has all the animals one might want to eat. In the days of small-scale agriculture, farm kids would take their best sheep, pig, goat, or heifer to the fair as their FFA or 4-H project. The competition was about animal husbandry, end-to-end, and the most skilled kid could win.

Success in the show ring, however, is a far from objective process, especially when the judges themselves are in the hog breeding business.

“It’s amazing, it’s a whole other market to itself,” says Jason Hughes, West Virginia University’s career and technical education coordinator and the state’s FFA advisor. “They’re showing most of the year, and they’re spending much bigger dollars than we can even fathom.”

Still, coal country takes cues from its neighbors to the West. The livestock market has become more uniform across states, both through national online auctions, as well as sales of semen, which let smaller breeders access elite gene pools without spending tens of thousands of dollars on a boar of their own.

Sometimes, the trade in show animals goes both ways: Breeders of one kind of animal will buy another kind of animal for their kids to exhibit. Take Eddie Riggleman, who bought a goat and a pig from out of state for his stepdaughter Ashley to show. He’s in the same business as the producers he supports, breeding and selling show lambs for an average of $1,500 each — though some run as high as $4,000, especially in the online sales. High-income buyers, he says, don’t always respond to price.

“Doctors, lawyers, all that matters is that they get satisfied,” Riggleman says. “It’s my livelihood. As long as I can get it, I’m going to get as much as I can.”

Fire and Brimstone placed dead last in their classes.

The pig that walked away with the trophy belonged to the Bartenslagers, who are in the show cattle business, and keep a barn full of other animals that the kids take to other competitions. They bought a blue butt from a breeder in Pennsylvania for $500. The most expensive pig doesn’t always win, a champion, says patriarch Art Bartenslager, is as much a combination of good genes, the judge’s particular taste, and absolute dedication to the art of animal management. Kids who resent losing, he says, just might not be working hard enough.

“Are those kids willing to give up going to the movie on Friday night to walk their hogs?” asks Bartenslager, after his daughter and her pig took their pictures in the winners circle. “We haven’t been on a family vacation that didn’t include an animal since my son”, who’s now off to college, “was 9 years old. This is our golf.”

The state’s youth agricultural education community is aware of the cost problem. In some areas, producers sponsor animals for kids who can’t afford them, and there’s been talk of creating a “pride of the county” category for livestock grown locally instead of purchased from out of state.

In FFA, though, inequality of opportunity is seen as part of the learning experience. “That’s a valuable lesson that you’re going to learn either in the show ring or somewhere else,” says Stephen Cook, chair of the agriculture department at a school district in Delaware. “The more money you have to get started with something, maybe the easier it is, but it doesn’t mean you don’t work hard to achieve your own goals.”

The man who ultimately decided the fates of porcine competitors at this fair, judge Tom Farrer, has grown and sold seed stock for 25 years. Where he’s from, in Indiana, he’s noticed that some 90 percent of kids now buy pigs for their 4-H projects — exactly reversed from 15 years ago, when 90 percent grew their own.

Something in there is lost, Farrar thinks, when a kid buys an elite pig for a few months and then sells it, rather than thinking through the process end to end.

“There’s greater emphasis on ability to show and being prepared for the competition,” he says. “I don’t think people relate that these are meat animals as much as they need to. They’ve become companion pets.”

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