Some kids’ livestock shows growing less fair

By Lydia DePillis / The Washington Post

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: 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.

“They go out of state, and have all this money to spend on a pig, so that they’ll win,” LaRue explained. “And they buy them already muscled, so you go out and take them in the ring, and the pig already knows what to do. So all these family-run farms, we have to breed our own, and we try to breed for the muscle, but you can’t always do that, because you have accidents.” Like sows failing to have litters, for example.

“We can’t do nothing, because nobody’s going to do anything about it,” agreed Cody Taylor, another youngling who’d bred his sow to a Yorkshire boar to get the blue-specked porker in his pen. “But it’s gonna come back and get ’em. One of these little farm pigs is gonna beat them and become grand champion.”

“One can hope,” LaRue rolled her eyes. “One CAN hope,” Taylor replied staunchly.

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.

That’s no longer the case. Fewer kids grow up on farms, and those who do are much more specialized — the number of hog operations fell by 70 percent between 1992 and 2009, for example, while production increased. That means more have to buy half-grown animals to show in livestock competitions, fueling the growth of specialized breeders and pushing up the cost of participation. In the end, those with disposable income can buy a good chance at a ribbon — and those who can’t might just be stuck with the scraps.

‘Bloodbath in the barn’

LaRue and Taylor’s competition is across the aisle: Trixie and Paisley, a Hampshire cross and an Exotic, their hindquarters bulging, their coats gleaming. Their owners, the Vaughan family, are not professional farmers; father Danny Vaughan outfits banks with money processing technology. For recreation, they own a stable full of show cattle, which Ryan, 12, and Garrett, 14, exhibit around the country. Their pigs have won a few times before — Ryan’s name hangs on a banner in the fairgrounds’ agricultural building, as Erica Vaughan notes with pride.

“It’s a bloodbath in the barn,” says Erica, who wears a sweatshirt with a rhinestoned pig on it as she putters around the pig stalls, sweeping up shavings and sifting out their poop. “We were talking last night, and I said ‘Ryan, they’re coming after you, honey.’”

Show season is intense in the Vaughan household. The pigs get two baths per day, Erica says, and take long walks. They livestream the Midwestern state fairs to monitor the latest trends, and follow their judge-to-be on Facebook. They feed just the right amount so that their pigs achieve their perfect weight as the day of the show arrives.

“You want to dial it in, you want it at 12 o’clock, you want it ready to go,” as Erica puts it. The Vaughans got their pigs in May, one from a breeder called McCoy Genetics in Ohio (slogan: “Continually making them better”), and another from Travis Platt in Indiana (“Fill space in your trophy case with Platt Showpigs”). One of them sold through Showpig.com, the premier online auction site, which has doubled the number of auctions it does over the past six years and in 2013 recorded an average sale price of $963, up from $550 in 2013 dollars five years ago, though prices can get as high as $8,000.

Rising interest

Increasing sale prices are just one component of the escalating cost of showing pigs — premium feeds are also very expensive. But they’re not as costly as cattle, which is partly why interest has grown in hog competitions. The National Swine Federation recorded a 15 percent increase in the number of purebred registered hogs between 2009 and 2013, and youth membership tripled over the past 10 years, to 12,400 kids.

Vaughan declined to say how much she paid for their pigs. “We do the top line of everything,” she says. “You get out of it what you put into it.”

The Vaughans’ determination aside, competition in West Virginia is mild compared to the massive state fairs in Iowa and Indiana and Ohio. Farms are smaller in the east, and the local food movement is stronger. The Midwestern shows are more heavily influenced by industrialized agriculture; hundreds of pigs participate, and the payoff from winning is potentially huge.

“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 adviser. “They’re showing most of the year, and they’re spending much bigger dollars than we can even fathom.”

Show time

The morning of the market hog show dawned wet and gray. Ribbons fluttered from the hog pens from the previous night’s showmanship competition — the part where kids are judged on how well they control their pigs as they run around an arena with other pigs — and Tiffany is back in her FFA jacket and slacks.

When her lightweight class was called, Tiffany prodded the brown pig onto her feet. She knew she didn’t have much of a chance — animals bred for human consumption don’t necessarily look like the ones a judge will pick out of a lineup.

Sure enough, Fire and Brimstone placed dead last in their classes, as did Cody Taylor’s entry. Ryan Vaughan’s Trixie finished second in the middle-weight category, but Garrett’s pig showed sluggishly and didn’t place, which Erica Vaughan attributed to having to sit for days on concrete with little exercise.

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.”