By Marcy Stamper
Shelby White has been whistling and singing to her steer, T-bone, to get him ready for the Okanogan County Fair next week.
The music is intended to accustom T-bone to the noisy environment at the fair, said Shelby, 11. And while T-bone lives near pigs, chickens and herding dogs on the Whites’ ranch outside of Twisp, he has never seen another cow, she said.
This is Shelby’s first year taking a steer to the fair, although she has raised pigs the past several years. Her brothers, Tanner, 12, and Cody, 9, are each taking a pig.
In fact, this is a banner year for Methow swine, with 16 youths exhibiting pigs, 11 with the local 4-H chapter and five younger kids in the open division, according to Suellen White, leader of the Methow Valley Cascaders 4-H Club.
The proliferation of pigs – after a few sluggish years – is in part because some kids are only now old enough to participate, but also because pigs brought in so much money last year, said Erin White, who heads up the 4-H pig section.
Generous prices for local pigs makes them an attractive way for kids to earn money for college, particularly since jobs here are scarce and getting to them can be hard for young people, said Erin.
Emily and Bodie Paul are among the Methow youngsters raising pigs for the first time. Two years ago they both raised goats, but they are especially enthused about their pigs, Sassy and Hunt. “My pig is really nice – the first day I could hug him and lay down with him,” said Bodie, 10, at their house outside of Twisp.
Sassy and Hunt have been feasting on fruit and chocolate milk lately, as Emily and Bodie try to get them to the minimum weight of 220 pounds to qualify for the market sale at the fair. Animals that don’t meet the weight limit can still be sold individually.
Kids typically spend an hour or two each day caring for their animal, and the responsibility ramps up now as they wash and brush them in preparation for the fair. Even chickens and ducks are shampooed before the trip over the Loup.
It’s also a long commitment – kids start in the spring with pigs, but Shelby has been working her steer for a year. Younger children are raising rabbits and chickens, and some are showing reptiles, said Suellen.
While most kids were excited about raising an animal, for some the learning experience was more far-reaching. Cody and Sam Wottlin found caring for pigs was very demanding. “We were really busy – it was hard to find time to take care of them,” said Cody, 10.
Cody has also realized that he prefers fish to livestock. He ties his own flies and plans to buy a new fishing rod with the earnings from his pig. “This was my first – and last – year doing pigs,” he said. “It’s no science-fair project you can whip up in a day.”
Training the pigs was the most enjoyable part, said Cody, who was trying to teach his pig to walk backwards so that he could compete for grand champion.
Although T-bone nuzzled her, licked her face, and tugged playfully on her T-shirt, Shelby said it had been easier to develop a relationship with pigs. “T-bone thinks he’s the boss, but that’s what has made it even more fun,” she said.
“I’m kind of a little sad about bringing my pig to the fair,” said Bodie. “I’ll miss taking care of him.”
Public speaking; community service
4-H teaches kids not only how to care for an animal, but also about holding meetings and parliamentary procedure. They also learn to make public presentations. This year, topics included porcine intelligence – Tanner showed how pigs learn quickly because they have such a good memory. Shelby described the many uses for pigs’ intestines, from medical applications for heart valves and skin grafts to uses as food, such as sausage casings. Another boy demonstrated how to castrate a pig, using stretchy fabric, rubber balls and poster board, said Suellen.
The kids also perform community service. They made holiday decorations for Neighbors Helping Neighbors and cleaned up a shooting range on public land.
While farm animals are the most conspicuous part of the fair, the event is an opportunity for people to get recognition for just about any interest or hobby. You can exhibit filberts, black walnuts, and Muscat grapes; snag an award for the largest melon or for fragrant caraway and lemon balm; and show cast ceramics, leather carvings and clothing for dolls. If your interests run to model robots, airplanes, stained glass, or hand-made body lotion, there is a division to accommodate you. All entries are judged on their own merits and not in comparison to the others in their category.
Despite the 66 years of tradition embodied in the fair, it has adapted to changing technologies. Two years ago, when the Whites took a pregnant sow to the fair, she became one of the most popular exhibits as news of her newborn piglets spread via text message. “People came running from every corner of the fair,” said Suellen.
There is no fee to enter the fair this year, although each animal exhibitor must buy a season pass for the four days – $20 per person or $25 for a family (two adults and three kids).
The fair runs from Friday through Sunday (Sept. 5 to 8). For more information, pick up a fair guide at one of many retail outlets around town, or visit www.okanoganfair.org.