My first 4-H project

Farm Forum

We are approaching the hottest time of the year, the season for roasting ears of sweet corn and farm kids roasting as they prepare their animals for the show ring.

County fairs are traditionally held when the thermometer is flirting with triple digits. Nothing amplifies the aromas exuded by livestock whose digestive systems have been jolted by the hurly-burly of travel like a level of heat and humidity that would make the Amazon jungle feel like a walk-in refrigerator.

My siblings and I all belonged to our local 4-H club when we were kids. The main goal of 4-H is to mold youngsters into responsible adults. One of the ways this is accomplished is by encouraging kids to have 4-H projects.

A 4-H project can be almost anything. A beginning 4-Her might have a simple project such as an artful display of misshapen potato chips he or she has collected. Experienced 4-Hers tend to have more ambitious projects such as an elegant linen prom dress that began as a field of flax.

Nearly everyone wanted to have a livestock project. Nothing says “I’ve arrived!” like leading a steer that weighs as much as a Sherman tank.

When I was nine, I was allowed to have a barrow as my first 4-H project. For those who aren’t “in the know” regarding farm terminology, a barrow is a male pig that’s been surgically altered to make him less of a boar (ha!).

I kept my barrow in a pen in our parents’ hog barn. I carried feed and water to him and brushed him daily. I also gave him baths, which makes as much sense as washing your car prior to speeding across a mudflat. Pigs love to wallow, which instantly erases all the effects of bathing.

Kids who have 4-H livestock projects are supposed to keep records regarding feed costs and average daily gain. When I was first told of this, I said, “That’s a bit personal, isn’t it?” But then it was explained that they meant my hog.

I despised numbers and ignored the recordkeeping edict. Besides, my feed costs were zilch. Whenever my pig needed feed, I simply requisitioned what was needed from the feed supply that Dad had thoughtfully stored nearby for his hogs. I would often pull weeds and give them to my barrow, so it could be argued that Dad owed me for farmstead beautification services. My feed costs might have actually been negative.

Based on the theory that bigger is better, I made certain that my barrow always had plenty of food. He wolfed down everything I gave him, eating like, well, a pig.

I also sneaked him table scraps. Hogs are voracious omnivores. Mine consumed watermelon rinds, old coffee grounds and steak trimmings with slobbery gusto. We may regard pigs as a source of delicious protein, but they probably think the same of us.

The day of our county’s 4-H Achievement Days promised to be a scorcher. Tempers and the temperature soared as Dad and I loaded my barrow into Dad’s pickup – no small feat given that the hog hadn’t been outside for months and was literally afraid of his own shadow. He wasn’t the least bit happy about trading the security of his little box pen for the unfamiliar environs of the pickup’s box.

We didn’t convince the hog that he had to walk into the pickup; it’s more like we physically carried him. This involved a flurry of squirming and grunting and squealing, along with some outgassing. The pig didn’t exactly like it either.

We arrived at the site where Achievement Days were held and unloaded my barrow. When my hog was weighed, I was told that he tipped the scales at nearly 300 pounds! Hooah!

But then I learned that this wasn’t good news, that the goal was to have a hog that weighed closer to 250 pounds. It would have been impossible to rid my barrow of his excess weight by the next morning even if we’d had a Richard Simmons workout tape.

I decided there was nothing to do except take my barrow to the washing area and give him a cool bath. Other kids with pigs had the same idea, and I noticed that mine wasn’t only unruly hog. You don’t lead a pig so much as turn it loose and guide it with body English. It’s very similar to bowling.

And as I washed my hog with a garden hose, he shook himself mightily, thoroughly spattering me with used bath water. I didn’t mind, though. At the end of that blistering day, even a pig-scented shower felt good.

If you’d like to contact Jerry to do some public speaking, or just to register your comments, you can e-mail him at: