When the pig litters came in January, the Farmer helped my son pick out pigs for his 4H project. They picked four, because you never know, really, how a pig will grow. So you start with four and pick two after a few months.
My son woke up every morning and fed his pigs, for six months. And after three months, he walked with the pigs, around in a circle, twice a day, to train the pig for the show.
There is huge variety in the amount of help parents give their kids in these projects. Some kids’ parents buy show pigs from out of state and the kids take very little care of them until the fair. Some kids do everything themselves.
I think it’s a lot like an allowance for a city kid. Each family manages the potential pitfalls of an allowance themselves. (My brother is a banker and he uses allowances to teach the concept of compound interest.) We decided it would be best if our son did most of the work. Doing the work is more important to us than getting a ribbon.
While my son trained the pig, the Farmer trained my son. So much of going to the county fair with a pig is showmanship. There are rules you could never know being an outsider: Always make eye contact with the judge, never show frustration with the pig, keep the pig between you and the judge.
That first rule is huge for my son. He has Asperger's and his eye contact is naturally limited. For someone with Asperger's, eye contact is awkward, overwhelming, and extremely tiring.
The Farmer understands this problem very well, because when the Farmer is having a difficult discussion with me, I cover my eyes. So he focused especially on teaching our son to make eye contact with the judge.
The day of the fair, my son was dressed up. Well, for a farmer. He had on a collared shirt and clean jeans. He had all the accoutrements of a great pig showman, including the brush you use in case the pig gets dirty in the ring. (You brush off the dirt when the judge is not looking — another tricky rule that no city person could glean.) He stood by the pen, watching his pigs, all cleaned up and ready to go for nearly an hour.
We had been preparing for so long. We had done preparation to help my son deal emotionally with the pigs getting slaughtered. We had prepared him for the chaos of lots of pigs, and utter boredom of waiting for his pigs’ weight class to be called. We had not prepared him for the huge tension that permeated the ring.
My son showed four different times. The first time he showed his pig by weight. His pig weighed 287 pounds. As he waited by the show ring for his turn, we realized he would be showing his pig in a weight class with all older kids.
The ring was hot and crowded and chaotic. But guess what? He did a great job.
It turns out that the Farmer was not quite up to date on showing pigs. For one thing, people shave their pigs now and we didn’t know that. So we had the only hairy pig. Another thing: The pig show does not reward pigs who are healthy and trouble-free and can be raised in a profitable family business. So, the pig show rewards a certain kind of shape and heft and it’s a type the Farmer doesn’t raise, so I can’t tell you that our pigs placed very high in the competition.
All those unexpected obstacles did not faze my son. He stuck to what we practiced and did well at that. We showed his pigs three more times. Each time he got a little more confident. And I felt like my son was growing up, right in front of me. There is so much you can do to prepare for the world, but really, you grow only as you succeed or fail. You learn so much about yourself in that moment.
I watched the Farmer watch our son.
And we were both nervous. It’s good to have the feeling that at some point, there is nothing more you can do. At some point, it’s time to fail or not fail. Those moments have been so important for me, and for the Farmer, and I was glad we could give that moment to my son.
And, he still got a ribbon. Third place.
I found myself hugging and kissing the Farmer a gazillion times — one for every hour they spent together practicing. And when there was a special category for kids from farm families (technically: for pigs that were raised on the same farm as the mother pig) where there were only eight qualifying kids (out of about 200 kids showing pigs) and I was so happy to have my son in that bunch. I’m so happy I’m raising my kids on a farm.
Sunday was the auction. The Farmer helped my son wash the pigs to get them ready. This was two days after my son showed his pigs, so by now, he felt like a pro around the stalls at the fair.
I know that the lesson here is that running a business and earning money is really hard work. But the sweetness of my son and the Farmer working together made me choke up again and again. I think there is also a lesson here that if you work with people you love working with, it doesn’t really feel like work.
I was actually worried sick that my son’s pig wouldn’t sell. Most county fairs have a 4H show, but they don’t auction the animals because there wouldn’t be enough bidders. Our county, Lafayette, has an auction that is renowned, even in Wisconsin, for having huge community support. The local businesses bid way above market and neighbors bid on each others’ animals for the sole purpose of creating a good community that teaches kids how to raise an animal and sell it.
To give you an idea of how special this community is when it comes to the 4H auction, San Diego County has 3 million people and it raises $400,000 at their 4H auction at the county fair. Lafayette County raises $100,000 from a population of 15,000.
This is the first sale of the auction.
I was so nervous that Melissa told me, “No more talking!” But I ended up making her register as a bidder because I was so scared that no one would bid.
The auctioneer announces the parents of the kid. I think this is why three bunnies sold for $600. When the auctioneer said “Penelope Trunk,” I felt ill. But then it all happened so fast. He came into the ring, and he looked so in tune with his pig, and so self-confident in his ability to manage the pig.
Bidding started. Market price for a pig like this is sixty cents a pound. The Farmer said anything over ninety-nine cents is a good sale. I told Melissa she should bid if it doesn’t go to a dollar a pound. But right away, the bidding got to a dollar. And the pig sold for $2.50 a pound.
I get choked up writing this. The guy who bought the pig is a guy who buys a lot of cattle from the Farmer. The guy who bought the pig is a farmer himself. He’ll eat the pork, for sure, but I’m sure he bought the pig because he believes in 4H and the county fair and what it teaches kids. And he believes we are part of the community, too: me and my sons and the Farmer.