My very first day at the Mid-State Fair, I got shoved by a pig.
I was standing in one of the straw-filled hog barns, apparently in the way of bristly, snorting pigs and their destination. Startled, I faced with new respect the 10-year-old girl I’d just watched manhandle a pig like a champion.
I’m from the Midwest, but I’d somehow never made it to a livestock show before taking in Thursday’s novice swine showmanship competition.
People from Illinois generally picture California as a land of beaches, surfers and Hollywood. Needless to say, I’ve learned a lot about the Golden State’s true status as an agricultural giant during my short time in San Luis Obispo County.
Part of this education included watching young children, only slightly larger than their pigs, maneuver the unruly animals around a pen under the watchful eyes of a competition judge. As people who deal with pigs regularly probably know, they’re aggressive and seem to resist instruction of any kind.
This didn’t seem to faze the 9- and 10-year-olds who used small whips to direct the 200-pound creatures during the rounds of competition. Some of the pigs even got into fights from time to time, squealing and butting each other. The tiny handlers barely blinked before smacking the pigs and shoving them apart. When this didn’t work, adults used wooden boards to prevent further swine combat.
I was clueless to the competition proceedings until I met Donna Kelley, an El Paso de Robles 4-H swine leader. She was taking photos while waiting for her son, Jerahmy, to compete in an older age group. Kelley explained showmanship is about the handlers’ skills, not the pigs’ attributes.
The handlers guide their pigs with the whips, always keeping their eyes on the judge, who stands in the middle of the pen. They must stand on the side of the pig not facing the judge to better showcase the animal, Kelley said. The handlers’ primary goal is to present the pigs in the best way, to maintain control of the animals while making sure they keep their heads up and look good for the judge.
Kelley said some judges find different things to be more important. In the past, the handlers used canes to direct the animals, but she said whips have since come into fashion.
“Things change from year to year,” Kelley said.
The showmanship competition came after Tuesday’s market contest, in which Kelley said the pigs are judged on their physical characteristics. The pigs are weighed in prior to competition and must be between 215 and 270 pounds, she said. Only gilts, female pigs that haven’t been bred, and barrows, male pigs that have been castrated, participate in the competitions.
At the end of the fair, the pigs shown are sold to be slaughtered. I asked Kelley if any of the children become attached to the animals they’ve spent months training.
“Some of them will leave with tears,” she said. “Especially in the first years.”
After a few rounds, the judge narrowed dozens of pigs down to one group: “the final drive.” The judge gradually eliminated some of the pigs — the children handling them left the ring with disappointed faces.
Eventually, just four pigs were left in the competition, handled by three girls and one boy. Their green 4-H caps bobbed around the pen, their eyes always fixed on the judge.
After a few anxious moments, he selected a winner: a girl with a blond braid tied with a green ribbon. Her whole face lit up as she stepped forward to receive her blue ribbon. The judge praised her handling skills, especially the way she kept her pig’s head up while guiding it around the pen.
I caught up with the champion, 10-year-old Chloe Key of Carrisa Plains 4-H, as she and her older brother were hosing down her pig, Ellie, in the hog barn. As I tried to avoid becoming swine roadkill, Chloe told me this was her first year competing at the Mid-State Fair, although she’d been working with pigs for a few years.
The hardest part of showing Ellie?
“She’s kind of stubborn sometimes,” Chloe said.
Christopher Key, Chloe’s dad, said she and her three older siblings had been showing animals for about eight years. The Keys also raise goats and chickens on their Atascadero property.
“She really kind of turned it on when she got out there,” said Key, when I asked him about Chloe’s performance.
As I passed rows of food stands on my way out of the fairgrounds, many selling dishes in which bacon plays a starring role, I began to realize the source of the pigs’ agitation: They spend the entirety of the fair drinking in the scent of their own mortality.