Farm to Market
"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.
Houston Dynamo vs. Sporting Kansas City
TicketsSat., May. 7, 7:45pm
Rice Owls Men's Baseball vs. University of Houston Cougars Baseball
TicketsTue., May. 10, 6:30pm
U of H Cougars Baseball v Texas A&M Corpus Christi
TicketsWed., May. 11, 5:00pm
Rice Owls Men's Baseball vs. Florida Atlantic University Owls Baseball
TicketsFri., May. 13, 7:00pm
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.
The observation that the vocalisms of pigs bear a striking resemblance to those of humans is no less true, and no less disconcerting, for being commonplace.
Every now and again a hog seems to decide to make a break for it and charges through the warren of barred pens. Those standing by leap into action, swinging gates to close avenues of escape, swinging more gates to open others, running into place with the ever-present handle-gripped sandwich boards that serve as moving walls to steer pigs to where they're supposed to be.
The fairground is built on a series of small hills (the better for postshow hosings), and it's not unusual to see a full-grown man flying down one bass-ackwards, torso contorted around the charging snout of 260 pounds of howling hog.
Knowing what a human knows, it's hard not to attribute human feelings to the pigs, hard not to think that they know what's coming and hard not to root for the occasional escapee.
Upton Sinclair would have had a field day at the pig sift.
But compared to the average ten-year-old girl in Brenham this weekend, Upton Sinclair was a naif.
Kody Ellis knows the sift well. He has been coming here since he was eight, the first year he was eligible to show.
Kody wakes up at seven every morning in his parents' comfortable brick house in Danbury, Texas, just blocks away from the local high school, a few minutes outside of Angleton in Brazoria County. He spends about 45 minutes a day, mornings and afternoons, walking and weighing and feeding the black-and-white Hampshire barrows he raises for show, and another hour a day with his silky black Brangus show steer. A small herd of show cows mills behind the tin barn beside the house, and a hefty collection of breeding sows trudges around the pasture beside yet another tin barn on the Ellises' five acres.
Kody's dad, Donnis, raises and sells Hampshire show pigs on this land, when he's not doing shift work at Equistar Chemicals. His mother, JoLynn, works as the office manager at Jaco Construction. When Kody finishes his chores, he gets ready for school, where he often stays late, as a Panther on the football team, or the basketball team, or the baseball team, or the track team, depending on the season. He's a member of the local 4-H club. He's also a member of the local FFA chapter.
Kody knows things about pigs that most people don't. He knows what the ear notches in a hog's right ear mean, and he knows what the notches in the left ear mean. (The notches are a coded identification method specifying who the hog's parents were, and in which litter, and in what order within the litter, the pig was born. There are also tags clipped to show hogs' ears four months prior to any competitive show, to prove that the hog has been raised by the kid showing it and not purchased as a ringer at the last minute.)
Kody knows his way around the supply cabinet in the converted garage where the Ellis show pigs are housed. He knows how to mix the four different feed ingredients to balance a hog's muscle mass and regulate its growth, and he knows when to include Quick Start Grower Plus Type C Medicated Feed Pellets and when to start with Final Cut Professional Show Formula + Hold n Tone Concentrate for Growing and Finishing Pigs. He knows to add electrolytes to the powdered feed, but about this he says, "I really don't know what that does." He knows that evaporating mechanic's soap can come in handy at a big show where the wash racks are likely to be busy, and he knows that in the wet climes of Brazoria County hogs are prone to mycoplasma hyopneumonia, joint disease, shipping fever and so many parasites that a dewormer is included in their feed. Pigs are extremely nervous and fragile creatures who'll up and die on you for no better reason than that they get castrated or hauled in a trailer. That's one reason that this year the Ellises have decided to concentrate exclusively on Hampshires, whose white band around the front shoulders is referred to by Hamp aficionados as "the mark of a meat hog" -- they're less prone than other breeds to what pig breeders call the stress gene.
Kody knows these things not because he's some swine savant prodigy who always wins the biggest belt buckles (though he's clearly a bright kid and has drawers filled with awards), but simply because fewer and fewer people know anything at all about the hog industry, and Kody's dad is one of the few who still does.
Donnis knows so much about hog business that, strictly speaking, he no longer even participates in the hog industry per se. The raising of show pigs is a semilucrative, or at least self-sustainable, niche within the larger world of hog production, which has otherwise gone all to hell in the past ten years, and especially in the past three months.
Donnis travels around the state and into Oklahoma, buying up to 200 young sow pigs a year to add to the 250 or so he raises twice annually.
A promising show pig in Texas (which is largely a pig backwater compared with Midwestern industry strongholds such as Illinois) might sell young for $250. A market pig sold at ideal market weight of 240 to 270 pounds at an age of six to seven months will bring 20 to 30 cents a pound, depending on the date and place of sale. Many Texas hogs are shipped to slaughterhouses in Los Angeles or Oklahoma, there being no major slaughterhouses in the state, and shipping cuts into profit margins that are already nonexistent. The Texas Pork Producers Association estimates that a break-even price would be something between 38 and 42 cents a pound for most producers. The 25 cents a pound that losing hogs bring at the Brenham sift is closer to typical.
Pork production is up, consumer demand and pricing are stable, exports are on the increase, and yet the price paid to producers has dropped through the floor.
Part of the problem is a pork pileup, or as the TPPA's VP Ken Horton explains, "a backlog in the meat chain." In 1998 three major U.S. slaughterhouses closed their doors. Then there were slaughterhouse work stoppages in Canada, diverting additional hogs across the border to await slaughter at one of the remaining American plants. The TPPA estimates a national slaughter capacity of 1.9 million head per week. For a while there, the nation was producing 2.1 million head a week.
The extras had to wait their turn, which means they had to continue eating, which means they gained weight, growing beyond their ideal leanness, putting on more fat -- a pig can easily put on two pounds a day -- which means more hog to unload at dive-bombing prices when the time finally comes.
The upshot is that small, independent producers with 20 head and dwindling savings accounts are leaving the business to a few large producing companies, which sell to their own processing plants, which in turn sell to their own packagers.
Either that, or they're selling pigs to competitors on the promise of championship caliber genetics. A prize-winning pig is worth money. Jodi Ellis socked away almost $40,000 in winnings, which is paying her way to Texas A&M, where she's a freshman, and Kody has amassed almost $20,000 so far. The grand champion barrow at Houston will earn his child handler $25,000 (grand champion hogs generally bring over $100,000 at auction, with any amount over the $25,000 cap distributed into scholarship funds). Placing hogs are guaranteed in the thousands. All 660 hogs that make it as far as Houston are guaranteed a minimum $600 at auction. Compared to the cost of buying a show pig (roughly $250), and the cost of feeding it for five months (roughly the same), the $600 seems a reasonable return for a hobbyist, as long as you're discounting the cost of your labor, the cost of maintaining your facilities and the cost of a family's traveling to Brenham for the weekend, and as long as your pig isn't one of the 3,327 that rack up those same expenses and don't even make it to Houston.
One day, as Kody is doing his chores, a man named Kenneth Smith from Matagorda County drops by. He has bought a Hampshire breeding gilt, or female, from Donnis Ellis, for his daughter to show at the Matagorda County Fair, and he wants some advice from Donnis. How many days before the show should his daughter take her pig off feed? What about water? What's the best way to "pull" the hog down to its ideal weight? What's the best way to "suck her up" to its ideal shape?
Feed eggs and increase water to put on more muscle without fat, otherwise oats and blood meal. Cut the water half a week before show day. Cut food from four pounds a day to three for three days before the show.
And what about the ass on that thing? "We've been holding her pretty hard, but this hog's got a great big butt."
"That's what's gonna win you a county show," Donnis tells him. "A big ass."
The judge of the Junior Market Barrow Show is, in the show-pig world, a mortal god. His name is Grant Grebner. He's 34 years old, from Washburn, Illinois, and he speaks with a voice whose modulation makes it abundantly clear that wherever the hell Washburn, Illinois, is, it must be flat.
Grebner holds the reins to nothing so trite as the hopes and dreams of a bunch of ag kids. That's just life. Grebner controls the future of the pig. And not just of one pig, or even 4,000 pigs. Grant Grebner has his hands on the steering wheel of all pigdom.
At the Houston Livestock Show, widely advertised as the largest, most prestigious such event in the universe, Grant Grebner is the only man with a vote. There is no mechanism by which to challenge his decisions. There is no such thing as protest. He will winnow a field of almost 4,000 hogs down to a single grand champion, and he will start the process by looking at each and every one over three straight 14-hour days for not much more than ten seconds apiece, tops.
Naturally, show piggers (a clumsy locution, but "pig showers" is unacceptable) are extremely interested in what Grebner is looking for. Different judges value different traits in different balance. Some favor a more heavily muscled hog. Others favor a more symmetrical balance. In a world where a perception of the squareness of a hog's back and how visibly the chime bone elevates under a hog's shoulder-hide when it walks can mean the difference between early death at a loss and postponed death and the continued hope of gain, God is in the details.
When Grebner judges a particular hog better than all other hogs, smart show-pig producers will start breeding hogs as similar to the champion as they can make them, thus all pigs will continue to converge in type according to the preferences of the meat industry and its representatives.
Antique photos of champion pigs show overstuffed balloon-shaped sausages with tiny, little legs -- the exemplary pig in an age that held lard the highest contribution of the species. Today, pork is marketed to nominally health-conscious consumers as a lean white meat, and pigs have been adjusted accordingly. Adult market hogs bear strikingly little resemblance to the roly-poly image popularized by novelty coin-holders. They look like short cows.
On the phone, Grebner says, "Ultimately what I'm trying to pick is a hog that's ideal for all aspects, one that grows efficiently and is sound and correct in his design, but also and ultimately what is desirable and ideal for a consumer, which is a lean, heavy-muscled product. Just as important in a market animal situation is the cuttability value, and for that you look at the total amount of muscle spread or shape that an animal has, in specific areas like down their top, which is their loin edge, in layman's terms that's where the pork chop comes from, the pork loin. You look for the muscle expression and shape that they have through their rump, which happens to be where their ham comes from. And not only the total amount of muscle that they have, but also how lean they appear, because a hog tends to deposit fat along his loin edge, so as you're looking for muscle, you're also able to determine how much of his width is due to fat."
In the ring, Grebner stands and walks with his arms crossed, hands on opposing biceps, in a posture that seems designed to minimize effort as he pivots his forearms from the elbow toward one chute or another for three straight days.
Over at one side of the show ring, sitting on top of the railing, brother and sister Mica and Devni Mark, who appear to be aged about eight and 11 respectively, make a game out of preguessing Grebner's calls.
"Oh, man," says Mica. "That's hard."
The Mark kids are down from Earth, Texas, which is about 65 miles north of Lubbock. Devni's heavyweight Chester has already been loaded on the meat truck, and Mica isn't showing this year. An older sister, Megan, is up soon with a heavyweight Hampshire, the same classification in which Kody Ellis is competing, but the Mark kids hold no illusions.
"She won't win," says Devni. "Our hogs are too fat. He doesn't like the fat ones."
"Sometimes," says Mica, "it's a long drive for nothing."
Donnis and JoLynn and Jodi Ellis, along with Kody's grandparents, have muscled their way onto the bleachers. The horizontal red, white and blue stripes of Kody's shirt are visible in line as he awaits his turn in the ring. The hog in front of Kody gets a good, long look, maybe 15 seconds, and is dispatched to the meat truck.
"The longer he looks," someone says, "the less he likes 'em."
Kody steers his 254-pound Hamp named Robin (litter-mate to Batman) into the circle, and Grebner wastes no more than three seconds before pointing Robin toward the "Houston Bound" chute.
Jodi voices the mantra of pig sift survivors everywhere: "He made it."
There's a localized cheer and a sigh of relief. Clearly it didn't take Grebner long to recognize a good hog. That's a good sign. Still, this is only Friday, the sift, when Grebner sends the obvious noncontenders on their way. Still to come is Saturday's prejudge, when Grebner will make his final cuts down to the allotted number of Hampshires that will go to Houston. Kody and Robin have made it through round one, but round two is the round that matters.
Friday night the Ellis family and friends gather beneath the canopies of their two flanking travel trailers and grill dinner on a stainless-steel barbecue pit. The Ellises eat corn on the cob, beans and chicken.
Saturday morning's sun rises on a depleted congregation. Thousands of animals have been sifted, sending their owners back home to prepare new hogs for the Junior Market Barrow Show in San Angelo on March 11 and 12. All the major, or terminal, shows in Texas are lumped together in late winter, first San Antonio, then Fort Worth, then Houston and finally San Angelo. Houston is far and away the largest, but many families will compete in all four, hoping one place will offset three disappointments and knowing all the while that four failures build more character than one.
Some of the kids are showing the strain. One girl's crossbreed gets away from her on the way to the washing pen, and she falls hard on a hip sheathed in latex-tight Wranglers trying to block its path, screams at the animal through angry tears and slaps it hard on the snout when it's finally brought to a stop. Beside the slaughterhouse truck, clusters of parents hug their kids and tell them good try as they say good-bye to their hogs, which are herded into the compartmentalized trailer with electric cattle prods. A few of the kids cry, mostly the younger ones, but the vast majority don't.
In the concession hall, 50 teenage boys have herded themselves into a chain-link pen and are feeding quarter tokens into video machines such as "Revolution," wherein "music is the weapon," and in which players attempt, with the help of the digitized members of Aerosmith, to shoot enough guards and disable enough school buses with projectile compact discs to free a bunch of really hot animated chicks from a reform school.
At one of the hall's dozen picnic tables, two boys are poring over a freebie industry tabloid called Show Times, the cover of which features vaguely pornographic close-up ass-and-ball shots of five breeding-stud hogs. The magazine is little more than a collection of ads for mail-order hog semen from companies with such names as Elite Sires and Trophy Boar Studs.
"Only $50/dose will buy you some 'white hot' semen that has the potential to turn your pigs into the 'talk of the ring,' " promises one ad hawking the services of a German Pietrain/Large White Boar cross named White Cloud. White Cloud is advertised as .28 BF and 10.4 LEA, which, to a kid who knows his hogs, means .28 inches of back fat and a 10.4-inch loin eye area. Normally you would take these measurements by cutting a hog in half and taking a tape measure to him, but of course a breeding boar's value is dependent upon his not being cut in half. Instead, the measurements are taken via sonogram.
A good number of sires carry names euphemistic for potency, such as Powerball, Air Force 1, Big Johnson, Macho Man, Blue Boy, Viagra, Remington, Slick Willey and Blast.
The second-most-popular names are basketball inspired: Nothin' But Net, Hang Time (though that could go both ways), Like Mike and, disturbingly, Akeem.
The boys ogle one particular sire flaunting a scrotum as fat as either one's head.
"Sheesh," one says admiringly. "That'd definitely win our county."
Kody and Donnis, meanwhile, walk Robin, brush sawdust out of his stiff, clipped hair and spray him down with a water bottle. Some smaller, nonterminal events, including many county fairs and the innumerable "prospect shows," where kids and pigs compete for cash prizes and trophies without having to surrender their animal, allow the oiling of hogs. Back home the Ellises buy baby oil by the case as a hide conditioner, and in the show ring, a sheen of oil emphasizes a hog's shape and musculature just as it does for competitive bodybuilders. But here in Brenham, as in Houston to follow, nothing is allowed on the hogs but water.
Now that it's Saturday, do-or-die time, the remaining show piggers themselves are dressed in their boldest colors. Kody wears a shirt yellow enough to stop traffic, a silver-and-gold belt buckle the size of an omelette pan and a brush tucked in the back pocket of his jeans.
One by one, yesterday's survivors are trotted back into the ring for another look-see by Grebner, who today has three options at his disposal. He may designate a hog "Blue," which means finally, and absolutely, that hog will go to Houston. Or he may designate it "High Red," which means that it's a good-looking hog and may well go to Houston, but only after another look. Or he may designate it "Low Red," which means that it's not quite as good-looking a hog as a High Red but may still make the cut depending on how many hogs are allowed in its category.
When Grebner is finished with a breed, officials will tally the number of Blues and subtract that from the number needed for Houston, in order to come up with a figure for how many more hogs need to be chosen. Oftentimes this number will be more than the number of hogs designated High Red, and all the High Reds will be directed down the Houston Bound chute. Grebner will then take another look at the Low Reds and pick out as many of the best of them as are needed to reach the quota.
When Kody's turn comes, Grebner takes a long, slow look, maneuvering into position for the best views from the top down, from behind, from the side, and points toward the Low Red pen. Usually when this happens, if you're watching closely, you can see a kid deflate just a little and lose a step. Kody, simply and without expression, goes where he has been told.
Today 220 Hamps are being considered, and 120 will make the final cut.
JoLynn Ellis is sitting in the bleachers. Donnis Ellis is on the far end on the ring, leaning over the bars and talking to Kody about strategy. He made it to Houston once before with a Low Red, and there's no reason to be discouraged now. Jodi is running around the perimeter of the ring, gathering information and passing it along to her mom and dad and brother.
It turns out that Grebner is taking an unexpected measure. There are already ten more High Red Hampshires than are needed for Houston, which would usually mean one more winnowing of High Reds and tough luck to the 95 Low Reds. But Grebner has asked to see the Low Reds one more time, just to make certain he oughtn't reclassify a few as High before making his final cuts. It's a move that many in the crowd regard as exceptionally fair-minded to the kids.
It takes forever, and when Kody's turn comes again, his mother shouts, "Side him!" into the ring, urging Kody to maneuver Robin into his best profile.
But it's not Kody's day, and Robin remains a Low Red, which means he's off to Port City. Sixty-three dollars and 50 cents.
The Ellises are back at their pen in no time, stacking their plastic feed dishes and breaking down their slatted pen barriers, packing up to go home.
An amateur observer, having unexpectedly come over the weeks to regard Robin as an exceptionally good-looking hog, and having invested some hope in the drama, and unlike Kody, having actually found himself wanting to brain Grebner with a pig stick when he made his call against The Home Pig, wanted to know: What happened?
"Well," says Donnis, "we didn't have enough butt."
Back in the ring, an announcer flips on the microphone and asks that the crowd applaud the assembled youngsters for their "politeness, helpfulness and even temper."
He adds, "It tells me the parents, teachers and agents have done a good job. They're not like that everywhere, you know."
Larry Miles is a Brazoria County extension agent and 4-H youth adviser. He knows a little something about hogs and a lot about 4-H.
About 4-H (for head, hands, heart and health), Miles, like everyone else who has ever had a 4-H experience, has nothing but good things to say.
"You name it," he says, "we can offer some some sort of education program to anybody anywhere on just about any topic."
Since the first Boy's Corn Club was established in Jack County in 1908, 4-H has expanded to include nearly five million kids in every state and 76 countries. And though the organization has rural roots and an agricultural reputation, modern 4-H clubs now offer programs on everything from consumer science to nutrition to computer skills to stress management.
"It's a little bit mind-boggling sometimes the things that we are actually asked to know and do."
The 4-H motto since 1930 has been "To Make the Best Better," which reflects the organization's role as an outgrowth of the land grant college system. Each state has a land grant college (in Texas, it's Texas A&M), which disseminates agricultural research through the agricultural extension service, of which 4-H is an arm. And if it seems odd that the agricultural extension service would target rural kids instead of their farming and ranching parents, it's not.
"The 4-H program," says Miles, "actually came as a result of a county agent trying to instill some new production practices in farmers and ranchers, and they wouldn't listen to him. So he got their kids to adopt those practices, and when the kids started outproducing their dads, it got the word across."
As for the hog business, Miles is less upbeat.
"Don't learn too much; it's a dying industry."
The Texas Pork Producer's Association has reported that there are only about 75 small hog farms in Texas with 100 to 150 head apiece. And the association expects that close to half of them will be forced out of business over the next several years by the pricing crisis. Meanwhile, actual hog production in Texas is up about 10 percent over last year, further compounding the oversupply problem.
"It's tough times for those people," says Horton. "Unfortunately the structure of the industry is going to change, and we can't control it. It's not controllable."
If pigs were poker, it'd be time to fold.
But Horton is quick to point out that the hog business and the show-pig business are far from one and the same.
"The business of showing pigs really does not relate to the commercial hog industry at all. Other than the fact that you have to raise them and you have to sell them."
And other than the fact that you've mostly got to sell them at the same market prices? "Absolutely."
"You would not want to go into this with the concept that the only reward you were going to get was market price. It's an educational process. You've got to look at it as a learning experience, and I think it's a hugely valuable one for kids. You do learn the value of 'Hey, I'm putting money into this, and this is what I'm getting out of it.' And in addition to that there are other things that you learn. Respect for animals. Respect for other people that are involved in the same process that you're in. Sportsmanship. The value of knowing about good livestock, what makes one pig better than another pig. All those things are lessons in life that can, you know ... it's just another good lesson.
"And one of the best things about it is that a kid that is involved in 4-H is probably not out getting in trouble somewhere else."
Maybe that's true. It's nice to think that conscientious 4-H guidance, proximity to livestock and good, clean country living combine to create a model citizenry that competes, and wins and loses, with good-natured equanimity.
"I got kicked in the head once," says Kody, of tending his Brangus Steer Larry, who took seventh place out of 28 in his class at the Livestock Show. "It knocked me out, but I was all right after."
In a world in which only a few hundred pigs out of thousands are worth more than what it costs to feed them, and in an adult hog industry in which none are -- which is to say, in the world of modern rural agriculture promulgated so effectively by 4-H and FFA and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo -- that ability to take it on the chin without complaint and come back for more should prove an invaluable tool.
"I was disappointed," says Kody of his showing at Brenham, "but you never know how it's going to turn out. I had a pretty good year with my steers."
As Kody says this, he's traveling with his dad to San Angelo, where he'll show two more Hamps, including Robin's pen-mate Batman, in a field of 1,800. When the time comes, he intends to follow his sister to Texas A&M, but he's not sure yet what he wants to study.
Does he intend to carry on in the hog business -- show, market or otherwise?
"No, sir. I think I'm going to do something more like engineering.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.