IF YOU GO
Collier County Fair
When: Through Sunday, Feb. 14, 2010. Hours vary by day.
Where: Collier County Fairgrounds, 10 miles east of Interstate 75 off Immokalee Road
Admission: $10 adults; children ages 6 to 11, $5; and children 5 and younger free.
Information: www.colliercountyfair.com or (239) 455-1444
Bella Jolly likes to be the center of attention. It probably comes from being the kid sister to a family full of daredevil daughters.
But over the course of this week, Bella, 11, will get her chance to shine even as she shares the spotlight with Priscilla, the pure-bred pig she’s entered in the Collier County Fair.
Bella, along with her little sister, Tori, 6, is one of about 400 kids in the county who take part in 4-H animal husbandry programs. Though it’s probably the thing most people associate the 100-plus-year-old organization with, agriculture is actually only a small subset of 4-H.
Now, the biggest number of its members participate in school-based programs. Thousands of Collier County fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders take part in the group’s public speaking competition, dwarfing the number of kids working with livestock.
But during the fair, those kids who raise animals are front and center.
The Jollys’ back yard has a familiar aroma to anyone who has spent time around livestock. The foul, acrid scent of manure blends with the molasses-sweet smell of horse feed.
Standing in the middle of the small pen her family constructed for 4-H hogs with Priscilla at her feet, Bella goes about describing what you want in a good hog.
“It needs to have nice hams, as in booty,” she says, then adds a “yeah” to make sure you got that she’s talking about the pig’s hindquarters.
More importantly, her mom and 4-H group leader Teresa Jolly says, it needs to have a deep “v” leading from its tail toward the spine.
“That let’s you know you’ve got one that has the right muscular structure,” she says.
Priscilla is Bella’s fourth hog. Two years ago, Bella, now a sixth-grader at Oak Ridge Middle School, earned second place overall for her hog.
This year, Teresa Jolly thinks the pure-bred Yorkshire has a good shot of taking home the top prize.
That is if she isn’t beaten out by her 4-H club’s president, Michael Balcom.
Balcom, a 16-year-old sophomore at Palmetto Ridge High School, has some experience raising a championship pig, having done it four years ago.
“My hog looks really good,” Balcom says. “Just the form it has. It looks way better (than my previous winner).”
The competition between the club mates is good-natured, as it is between the other clubs. But there are financial implications for the upper-echelon hogs.
A prize-winning hog could fetch as much as $10 a pound. At an average of 250 pounds, that’s a hefty chunk of change. But most hogs won’t sell for nearly that.
“Usually we don’t go under $2 a pound,” says Rhonda Ward, livestock manager for the fair. “The average is probably $3.25 (per pound).”
While the hope is most kids will make a profit they can bank toward college, the reality is that many might not break even, despite auction prices that are close to five times the real market price for hogs.
On Wednesday, the average price per pound was less than 70 cents, according to the National Pork Board.
While the prices they will earn at market aren’t realistic, Ron Balcom, Michael’s father, says the kids are learning a lot about business. They have to keep logs of all of their expenditures to submit before the competition.
“They even calculate the depreciation of their hog enclosures,” Ron Balcom says.
And just like any business there are good years and bad years, says Trisha Aldridge, the 4-H Outreach coordinator for the University of Florida’s Collier County extension office.
As market price goes down, feed prices keep climbing.
A 50-pound bag of feed is at least $20, she says. And that’s what a pig will eat in a week. When you factor in the cost of building an enclosure, buying the hog and feeding it, Aldridge estimates that each pig will cost between $400 and $600 to raise for the three months leading up to the fair.
Some local businesses chip in with extra money to help kids offset the costs of raising the pigs.
“This year the kids will be coming close to just breaking even,” she says. “We’d like them to make money for college. But they are gaining valuable experience.”
Teresa Jolly agrees. Even if Bella doesn’t make a dime of profit off the sale of Priscilla, she will have grown a lot by taking care of the animal and by selling it off.
“It’s a responsibility,” Teresa Jolly says. “It’s up to (the kids) how much they want to put into this.”
For her part, Bella seems like she’s been up to the challenge.
Standing in the pen with Priscilla, now a robust 260 pounds, the hog follows Bella’s every move like a puppy follows its mother. It eats from her hand, sits down on its haunches like a dog and lets Bella brush its bristles.
It acts like a pet, which is both good and bad for the kids.
Teresa Jolly says Bella almost didn’t raise a second hog after learning her first pig would be sold to slaughter.
“But people buying are getting some great meat,” Aldridge says. “These animals are the best taken care of meat around.”