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County fair culmination of months of hard work for Sonoma students

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Summer jobs for teens in the Sonoma Valley are starting to wrap up as school is just around the corner. Yet for many Sonoma youth, their summer jobs, while also ending soon, started back in spring with the purchase of piglets that are now fully grown pigs.

Fully grown pigs that will soon be headed to auction at this year’s Sonoma County Fair.

How these teens became involved in raising livestock has its roots in the community as well as at Sonoma Valley High School.

Many students at Sonoma Valley High take AgriTechnology to fulfill their science courses – and many in that course have taken their studies a step further by joining Future Farmers of America (FFA) through the AgriTechnology Department.

Through the FFA, they raise steers, pigs, goats and lambs that will be auctioned off for thousands of dollars, money that goes into their bank accounts, at the fair.

While other teens enjoy the day hanging out or swimming on a warm, Saturday afternoon, four Sonoma teens are at a local farm surrounded by vineyards. These four have diligently chosen to spend the day working with their pigs prior to the Sonoma County Fair which kicked off Aug. 1 in Santa Rosa.

As happy looking pigs, unknowing of their future trot about, outgoing FFA president Jen Torres, 18, says she just kind of stumbled into the “AgTech” program.

“My friends wanted me to take something like chemistry but I circled to ag,” says Torres, before shyly admitting she doesn’t know what caught her attention. Clearly there was something like fate involved – as Torres, who has just graduated from Sonoma Valley High School, is headed to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in the fall to study Ag Sciences and Ag Education with an eye on teaching in the future.

For Ross Neles, 16, and Casey Spencer, 16, who are both heading into their junior year at Sonoma Valley High School, raising animals for buyers is more of a family tradition, as both have parents who were in FFA.

Spencer’s mom, Jeni Spencer, currently provides a huge amount of support and participation in the Sonoma Valley FFA.

Neles has been raising animals since he was 8 years old and, even while currently sporting two broken arms from a hay ride mishap, conveys a sense of excitement. Meanwhile, Spencer’s two pigs, one a Light Cross named “Whiskey,” the other a Dark Cross named “Sunshine,” snort and sniff throughout the barnyard. Both young men profess they don’t really have any reservations about the auction. FFA newcomer Rylie Vahle-Enlow, 14, is not only a bit nervous about her first fair auction, she also lost one of her pigs to a medical condition a few months earlier and was forced to sell it off before it had the opportunity to reach full weight.

Chalking the experience up to bad luck, Vahle-Enlow explains that while she bought her pigs along with the others in April, one soon developed a prolapse that required surgery.

“We paid for the surgery,” says Vahle-Enlow, still forlorn when recalling the event, “but it didn’t work. We couldn’t afford another surgery and it also may not have worked. So we sold him early.” Yet Vahle-Enlow still had one pig headed to auction this past week, along with the others.

One parent noted that her son is learning a lesson “about getting convinced to buy an expensive pigs, feeding it expensive food and then trying to break even at the auction.” Her son had one more pig yet to be auctioned, as of press time, and she said he needs to earn $4,000 on it just to break even.

But Sonoma County Fair represents a chance for local students to show off the hard work, dedication and care they’ve shown their animals over the past several months. After purchasing their pigs and the feed for them, these teens spent the next five to six months working toward the fair auction. However, there are many steps involved along the way rather than just simply raising a well-fed animal. Each day the pigs must be walked so they can have the much-desired combination of muscle and fat. During these walks, student also train their pigs to be under control and adhere to simple directions designed to get them out of their pens, in front of judges and buyers, and then safely back into the pen.

As auction day approaches the students must also make sure their pigs are clean and well taken care of away from home. This includes washing them and cleaning their hooves as well as keeping a tidy pen. All of these actions carry weight with judges that reflect on how much time and care students have shown their animals.

An obvious question tends to bubble to the surface when one realizes these are young people raising animals that will be sold and slaughtered for food. While Vahle-Enlow admits she’s not particularly looking forward to sale day, both Neles and Spencer say they’ve gotten used to it, having grown up around it.

Yet for Torres, who’s family has no background in farming (her father makes cheese and her mother packages wine), she’s found a simple and eloquent way to share her feelings about letting go of the animals she’s worked with for so many months.

“At first it did kind of bother me that we’re raising these animals and then knowing they will be killed,” she says. “But raising animals has taught me to be more thankful for food and farmers who work so many hours to put food on our plates.”

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