This time of year is county fair season in the Midwestern United States. For children in farm families, it is their time to show off the livestock they've been helping raise all year. The kids are hoping for a blue ribbon, but find they get much more than that from their labors.
It is a little past six in the morning at the DuPage County Fair in Wheaton, Illinois. Fourteen-year-old Courtney Modaff is among 20-or-so kids in the pig barn, getting their animals ready to be paraded before a judge at eight. "Wash our pigs, put oil on them to make them look shiny," she says. "Yesterday, my cousin had to clip them, shave them, so that the muscles look better."
It is safe to say that at this hour of the morning, most teenagers would rather be sleeping. But for Courtney and her 13-year-old sister Brooke, raising pigs for the county fair is worth the early mornings. "I just like it because it is fun to have a pig and have experiences that a lot of other kids can't do," she says.
Fewer and fewer kids in the Chicago area live in farm families. Here in DuPage County, about 40 kilometers outside of Chicago, there are fewer than 40 fulltime farms, and only a handful of those are livestock farms.
As recently as 20 years ago, there were 100 farms in DuPage County. Most of those are now subdivisions of single-family homes for the county's growing population, or have been paved over for shopping centers.
Pig farmer Brian Meyer's children belong to the youth agricultural organization 4-H, and show their pigs here in DuPage County, even though they live in neighboring and more rural Kane County. "There are very few animals shown at the DuPage Fair that are actually raised in DuPage County," he says. "Most of them, people have moved to another county, but they still participate in DuPage 4-H."
So why have an agricultural fair in a county with so little agriculture? DuPage County Fairgrounds director Steven Hess says it is part nostalgia, part entertainment and part education. "This is what keeps agriculture in the minds of people who live in Wheaton and DuPage County, so they understand what is going on: where does bacon come from, where do eggs come from, where does milk come from, how are calves born, where do chickens come from?"
Getting pigs ready for judging isn't all work. There is a good amount of idle time, time for talking, laughing, playing games and forming lasting friendships. Courtney Modaff says these are the days she'll tell her own kids about someday. "I have lots of friends. It is a family thing, I feel like I like to do it because it is that." she says. "I'd rather be here with my friends than be sleeping in bed."
And whether they end up working in agriculture or not, as adults, these kids agree that raising pigs is good practice for the working world. Kara Meyer is a fair superintendent whose contest days are behind her. "I think I learned a lot of responsibility and time management. I think just work ethic, how to work efficiently so that you get good hogs," she says.
What the judges look for in a good hog is a lean appearance and good muscle structure, which makes the pigs attractive to buyers who want to turn it into ham, pork chops, or pork sausage like those on Kathy Hartman's grill this morning.
Ms. Hartman and her family run a commercial pig farm in a neighboring county. She says the kids spend a lot of their summer vacation from school working with the pigs, but realize the animals are being raised for meat, not to become family pets. "We raise about 17,000 a year," she says. "The semi [truck] is being loaded this morning. They see this every week, every day. It is not a pet project."
And once the fair is over and this year's pigs are sold, the teenagers will have a few weeks to sleep a little later until school begins again.