Farm to Market

Kody Ellis shows pigs. What have pigs shown him?

"It teaches hard work. It teaches that, hey, nobody's gonna give you anything in life. You've got to get out there and you've got to compete and you've got to work at it. And besides that, probably one of the best things it does: It reminds them that if you're gonna do this for a living, it's a pretty tough way to make a living. And it might be better to go to school and get an education."
-- Ken Horton, Vice President, Texas Pork Producers Association, on the Houston Livestock Show's Junior Market Barrow competition

The blond boy doesn't look like a Future Farmer of America. Something about the concert T-shirt and the lanky hair hanging in his face makes him seem like he'd be more at home giving the finger to The Man in a Mountain Dew commercial. But there he is, holding a yard-long pig-steering wand in both hands in front of him, following his pink Chester White around the show ring with quick, tiny steps, bent at the waist, trading fast, nervous glances between his aimlessly trotting barrow hog, which he has raised and fed and tinkered with for five months, and swine judge Grant Grebner, who appraises the pig for all of six seconds before extending a flat-palmed arm southward, indicating no, not good enough, and sending the hog down a steel-railed chute and up the ramp into a waiting livestock trailer attached to one of an endless succession of one-ton Dodge duallies that take turns ferrying loser hogs to the nearby Port City slaughterhouse, where they will bring, on this day, 25 cents a pound, or roughly $65 apiece.

The kid explodes.
He beans his pig-guiding stick into the crowded aluminum bleachers.
"Fuck you all! This is fucking bullshit!"

There's a collective gasp, followed by the disapproving tsk-tsk of a hundred clucking mother hens.

Outside the show ring, the Ellis family -- dad Donnis, mom JoLynn, daughter Jodi and son Kody -- can't help but notice the commotion.

"He's definitely got a problem," says Donnis, "but it don't have to do with animals."

"It's just a pig show," says JoLynn.
Kody, 14, who has his own hog to show, doesn't say a word.
Blond boy stomps out of the ring, changing direction every so often, moving uncertainly, more than a little like the pig he has just surrendered, trying to avoid the inescapable descent of various parents and 4-H supervisors and show officials ready to buck up the young man's waning sense of sportsmanship.

Because such behavior is unacceptable.
Because things like this simply never happen.
Because the boy has failed to gracefully bow to the lesson inherent in the competitive showing of pigs, a lesson all too easily translatable to life beyond the show ring, a lesson that Kody Ellis, a seasoned, young show-pig veteran, already knows well. The lesson, in its briefest form, is this: Most people, most of the time, are going to lose.

There's no better place to learn this lesson than the Washington County Fairgrounds in Brenham on the weekend of February 26 through 28. A crowd of 3,987 hogs, attended by 3,987 kids, their 7,974 parents, and their parents' ubiquitous Ford 350 Power Stroke Diesels with farm truck plates, congregates to compete in what, in terms of sheer number of entries, is the Houston Livestock Show's premier event.

This is the Junior Market Barrow Show. "Junior" meaning that the competition is open to 4-H or FFA-sponsored youths aged eight to 19. "Market" meaning that all hogs, winners and losers alike, will eventually be sold for meat. "Barrow" meaning castrated male pig.

The competition is and has for so long been so big that 15 years ago it outgrew the Astrodomain's ability to house it, leading to the Brenham "sift," or prejudging, in which exactly 660 barrows are chosen to move on to the big time in Houston, and the rest are loaded then and there onto trailers headed for the slaughterhouse. The Brenham sift, and the Junior Market Barrow Show at large, is what pig people call a "terminal" show, which designation needs little explanation. You can't take your loser pig home and try again at some other show. Your pig is meat so fast your head will spin.

The fairgrounds, located between Brenham High School and the Washington County Jail, becomes, for one long weekend, a makeshift Anglo colonia of rented travel trailers and Porta-Cans.

Local 4-H concessionaires sell pork burgers and sausages on a stick, and pigs in a blanket, and T-shirts emblazoned with a porky Elvis caricature and the words "Love Meat Tender."

Hogs are everywhere: sleeping in sawdust-bedded pens, being herded by their keepers around the grounds so that they tire into docility before a show-ring appearance, being shampooed and hosed down and clipped and brushed, being weighed and fed and watered and posed and studied and finally steered either onto the slaughterhouse trailer or down the other, better chute, the one overseen by a wooden cutout of a pig painted blue with the words "Houston Bound."

You can smell a collection of thousands from half a mile away and hear them from farther than that. There's no point in guessing how the English language originally came to represent the sound of a pig with an "oink," but the fact of the matter is that pigs do not oink. They snuffle and grunt in their quieter moods, and they scream like grievously wounded women when they're upset, which, in this unnaturally crowded setting (pigs are not by nature particularly sociable animals), they often are.

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