Sonoma County Fair: Raising pigs for market is no day in the mud bath for local FFA students

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Sonoma County Fair

The Sonoma County Fair runs 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday through Aug. 7. Sonoma County Fairgrounds, 1350 Bennett Valley Road, Santa Rosa. $12 general; $6 age 7 to 12; free 6 and under. Call 545-4200.

For some teenagers, summer break isn’t necessarily a day at the beach. In fact, two Sonoma Valley 16-year-olds have chosen to get down and dirty in the mud this summer and raise pigs for the Sonoma County Fair.

Across the United States, more than 500,000 high schoolers are taking part in local Future Farmers of America programs. As part of “agriculture education” in high school, FFA teaches teenagers through classroom and hands-on learning about all types of farming practices.

Through FFA, teens have the choice to do a Supervised Agricultural Experience (SAE) – which means raising an animal to show at the Sonoma County Fair, currently taking place through Aug. 7 at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. And, this year, Sonoma Valley High School students Khyren Cox and Lucia Palmieri are among those calling “soooey!”

But before the enjoyment of the pig and the glory of the fair, the project started out for Cox and Palmieri in a much more business-like way: with a $1,500 loan. The loan starts them off with two pigs – they’ll pay it back after they sell their pigs at the fair – which they picked from a local breeder in April.

“Picking the hog is based on size and how they stand on their feet,” said Cox a junior at SVHS who is in her third year raising pigs. “If they’re up on their toes it means they’re gonna be a good pig.”

Students are able to keep their pigs at the SVHS “farm,” but are required to clean the pens daily and feed them two to three times a day. According to Cox, they can spend seven to 12 hours at the farm a week.

To prepare for the fair, the students must practice “showing” their pigs, said Cox.

“For the show, we take a show stick – most of the time we just call it a ‘pig stick’ – and we’re supposed to lightly tap the side our pig’s face until they turn the way we want them to,” said Cox. “In the show ring, we have to make sure our pig walks in front of the judges.”

Even when you put in a lot of work with your hog, this can be a difficult practice. Palmieri says her pigs obey for 20 minutes before they run away. When it is hot, it is especially hard to get them to obey. To cool them off, the owners make mud baths.

“That gets annoying, because they never leave the mud pits,” Cox said.

Once fair time comes, however, there are no more muddy pigs. Students bring their pigs to the fair on the first Monday, and show them Tuesday and Wednesday in such categories as Market, Showmanship and Born and Bred. In Market, they judge the animal and whether they have nice “meat quality.” With Showmanship, they judge the owners and how well they’ve trained the hog. Born and Bred is for locally raised barrows, or castrated males, only.

“There are like 30 pigs per showing times,” said Palmieri, who’s raising a pig for the first time this year. “You try and show the judge both sides of the pig, both front and back, to show all the muscles and the curves of the pig. You have to wash them with a specific shampoo before you go out so you can highlight the different muscles and everything.”

Sonoma County Fair

The Sonoma County Fair runs 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday through Aug. 7. Sonoma County Fairgrounds, 1350 Bennett Valley Road, Santa Rosa. $12 general; $6 age 7 to 12; free 6 and under. Call 545-4200.

The staff weighs the pigs in the beginning to make sure they are all in the bracket weight which, this year, is 220 to 270 pounds.

“I’m hoping to get my pig closest to the max weight,” Cox said when we spoke to her last week. “But they lose weight on the ride to the fair, because it stresses them out.”

Each owner has tips and tricks they have learned to control and help their pig gain weight. Cox says pigs have a sweet tooth, and she may buy her pigs ice cream at a fair ice cream stand. Prior to that, if the pigs are not gaining weight, owners often put molasses or cake mix in their food to fatten them up.

“Some pigs like walnuts or dried apricots. So if you keep some in your pocket and they start getting distracted, you can pull one out and they’ll follow it,” Palmieri said.

The FFA experience has taught the girls more than just how to fatten up a pig. Cox, especially, said she had to work on her time-management skills - learning to balance school, homework and raising a pig.

“I’ve definitely learned how to budget money,” adds Palmirri. “I got a loan for my pigs. It’s really hard to make sure you have the right amount of stuff and what you need on certain dates and keep it budgeted.”

Both girls agreed this project has taught them responsibility, as well.

After all this work, the pigs are auctioned off for slaughter on the Friday of the fair. After selling them, they put them in their pens, feed and water them one last time and say goodbye.

“It’s hard. Typically when I’m walking them for auction, I start crying right after,” Cox said, who has already dealt with heartache, as one of her pigs died from heart problems this summer.

Despite the tears, students can make $4 to $6 per pound off their pigs.

“It’s definitely harder than a lot of people would think,” said Palmieri. “I have to constantly remind myself that they’re market hogs and they’re not coming home with me in the end, otherwise I would get way too attached.”

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