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A fair price

Walking into the pig barns at the Jackson County Fair feels as chaotic as entering a busy downtown district: Everywhere, kids and their parental pit crews are feeding, watering, washing or directing their pigs with switches as they travel between the washing area and their pens amidst a cacophony of grunts and squeals.

A runaway swine makes a break for it, only to be blocked by a team of parents armed with colorful boards to deter such an escape. Unfortunately for the pig, it's surrounded by practiced hands.

The arrival of the fair, which opens to the public today, signifies the end of a journey for 4-H'ers and Future Farmers of America members — a journey they've taken for six months with the floppy-eared, curly-tailed companion that is now rooting in the dirt and sawdust of its pen.

The kids range in age from fourth to 12th grade, their pigs from 230 to 280 pounds. The kids take on a diverse load of responsibilities, from the expense and effort of raising their animals to learning how to market themselves and their product.

Stefanee Tolner is a veteran of the Applegate Swine 4-H Club. At 19, she's now too old to compete, but she's here this year to support her two younger brothers, Ryan and Brandon. Ryan's pig, Fortune Cookie, is a female, also known as a gilt. Brandon's pig is Heath, a male, or barrow. The Tolners live on a farm in the Applegate, where they raise cattle and other animals. Pigs, however, are their specialty.

"They take the shortest amount of time to raise, they're a lot of fun, and I think they're the cleanest animals we have," Stefanee says. 

The boys' pigs were judged Tuesday (day corrected) in the show ring, receiving scores that determined their placement in the swine auction tonight. Pigs with the best scores are auctioned separately; those with poorer scores are auctioned in lots of two or three, meaning less money for the owners.

Typically, bidders already have an idea of which pigs they're interested in before the auction. That's because the kids often write letters to the buyers that they hand-deliver, sometimes adding personalized touches. Ryan and Brandon Tolner, for example, delivered their letters with fortune cookies and Heath bars. Stefanee says she used to send anywhere from 30 to 50 letters for every pig she raised.

"We kind of go above and beyond," she says about her family. "But I mean, the more buyers, the better."

It seems to be an effective strategy. Sherm's Thunderbird Markets is one such perennial buyer, and manager Steve Olsrud says his stores receive about 100 letters leading up to the fair. Almost inevitably, those are the animals the stores bid on.

"The kids ... buy their animals, they buy the feed and they get the profits. It teaches the kids responsibility, work ethic, how to take care of their animals," Olsrud says. "It’s just a great program."

Some of the 4-H chapters have training sessions leading up to the fair on how to care for and show the livestock. Networking and community support play integral roles.

"Some of them go through 12 years, and you see them go from being shy and timid to confident and having a whole range of skills," says Hank Rademacher, the swine superintendent of the Eagle View Livestock 4-H Club, as he keeps his eyes trained on several pens of sleeping swine.

The swine and poultry auction begins at 7 p.m. today in the Olsrud Pavilion, followed by the beef and goat auction Saturday.

Reach reporting intern Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@mailtribune.com. 

Jessalyn Magerle, 8, left, Jarrett Dalton, 11, Tatyana Dalton, 8, and Lane Magerle, 11, share a moment with Wrecker, a 268-pound market swine. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch
Popeye gets a wash-down Tuesday by Hunter Wilson, 14, in preparation for the Market Hog Class competition at the Jackson County Fair. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch