On a 104-degree Thursday afternoon less than two weeks before the start of the Kern County Fair, the only ones not sweating in the pig barn at the Kern High School District farm were the pigs themselves, and that’s because they can’t.
A group of Foothill High students had gathered to feed, water and weigh their miserably hot, sweat-gland-challenged hogs before meeting teacher Jessica Paulisich for showmanship practice, mercifully cut short, not necessarily out of consideration for the students but the pigs. In the show ring, all eyes were on the teacher, playing the role of impassive swine judge, issuing commands to the 10 students to lead the animals this way and that. The object of all the ordering-around is to determine how well the teens, fortified only by a pig whip and their own determination, handle the 200-pound-plus hogs.
While the students paraded their swine around the ring, Paulisich announced a race:
“Without physically harming the animal, get to a pen, one pig to a pen.” With more pigs than pens, someone would be left out. This time, that someone was Mia Alacorn.
“There are stubborn pigs,” observed Sonia Alacorn, Mia’s mom, quietly offering sympathy from the sidelines.
But the next time Paulisich issued the challenge, Mia, ready to pounce, was the first to secure a pen.
“That’s the luck of the draw, Mia,” Paulisich said encouragingly.
Luck is always welcome, in hog-handling as in life, but the Foothill sophomore isn’t leaving anything to chance this year.
In 2014, Mia’s first year in the pig leagues, the student made some rookie mistakes. She raised the animal on private property away from Paulisich’s watchful eye at the school farm, and she wasn’t aware that a major part of the project is to secure sponsorships, ensuring she had buyers at fair time.
But the biggest problem of all: Her pig — which she didn’t even know she could name — registered a scrawny 130 pounds at weigh-in, 85 pounds shy of the fair’s minimum weight for hogs, which means disqualification from the fair in every category but showmanship. And because her animal was excluded from the market auction, she had no chance to recoup the cost of raising it.
“She called me and said, ‘My pig didn’t make it,’ said mom Sonia. “She was crying.”
“I’m done with pigs,” Mia remembered saying at the time.
“But I told her,” Sonia said, “not every pig is the same.”
After nursing her disappointment for three months, Mia was back in January to secure a piglet from the school’s breeding sows. She would raise the barrow at the farm, work with Paulisich, find sponsors and come up with a name:
Considering the heartache her petite pig caused her last year, the name is either a reckless tempting of fate or evidence of a wicked sense of humor. But one thing is certain: At 244 pounds with 13 days left to fairtime, Little Bitz is not too little a bit to qualify this year.
For Mia’s mother, the year from disappointment to determination has been one of incredible growth for her daughter.
“I’ve noticed she’s changed tremendously. She’s more of a responsible young lady. She knows she’s responsible for another life. That’s exciting for me as a mom.”
To market, to market
The 2015 Kern County Fair, which opens Wednesday, is not just a big deal for Mia and Little Bitz. All hogs and their owners took a big step on behalf of technology earlier this summer when, in a first for the Kern County Fair, DNA was used to identify swine.
Why the fuss? Because raising animals for meat can be a lucrative enterprise for the students. Last year, the junior livestock auction raised about $2.5 million, more than any other auction at any other fair in the state, said Kern County Fair CEO Mike Olcott.
Ear tags have always been used — and still are — to mark the hogs. But there have been complaints that tags are insufficient as the sole identifier since they can be switched from pig to pig, albeit with great difficulty and noise, if a competitor is determined to cheat.
“DNA ensures that the animal that is tagged is the animal that shows up at the fair,” said Paulisich, who has taught at Foothill for four years.
In June, students paid $5 for the DNA kit, which involved the collection of a hair sample from the animal, extensive paperwork and several photographs, showing the tags, the animal and the child. At the fair, there will be random DNA testing, as well as drug screening of the animals, and all champion hogs are tested.
“We’ve been pushing them on the issue of DNA since I’ve been here,” said Paulisich, “so it’s nice.”
The fair also will return to the policy of housing hogs in their own pens after auction, rather than penning several together, as was the case last year. Fighting, caught on digital recorders, broke out among the animals, the violence upsetting fair-goers, teachers, parents and the children who raised the livestock.
“For ag teachers, it seems like common sense,” to separate the animals, Paulisich said.
Olcott apologized for the incident days after the conclusion of last year’s fair.
“I think when you have a fair this big, you’re bound to have issues and you have to take each one the best you can and do the best you can,” Olcott said recently, in addressing the pig scuffle.
Hard work pays off
Back at the school farm on South Mount Vernon, the main concern in mid-September is not only the competition among hogs, it’s the one among hog owners.
Sophomore Aaron Aguilar, 15, who has two pigs, knows the value of a good sales pitch. In 2014, he secured enough sponsorships for his hog to fetch just shy of $3,000, the highest price for a Foothill pig last year, Paulisich said.
“I bought an Xbox One and put the rest in the bank,” he said.
In the last few years, prices for many livestock projects have spiked, thanks to the mysterious Buyer No. 9, a foundation that places bids far above the market rate and donates the meat to feed the needy.
“It’s never a guarantee they’ll be there,” Paulisich said, “but it’s nice for the kids.”
The students, after all, are looking to cover their expenses and make a little — or a lot — extra for college.
Foothill, which breeds its own swine, charges the students $250 per piglet, Paulisich said. The feed — hogs eat an average of 8 pounds a day — is provided for free upfront by the students’ adviser. Paulisich divides the season’s total feed bill by the number of hogs and exhibitors, who reimburse the school after they receive their auction checks.
“Money is the hardest part,” Paulisich said. “It’s tough to come up with the deposit of $250 and it’s the time and ride to get here.”
Another challenge, at least for students new to livestock, is the attachment that forms between human and animal. Mia speaks the words of a steely livestock woman, but she’s still a girl of 14, and when talks about Little Bitz, she uses descriptions like “cute and sensitive.”
“Mia has gotten to where if she tells the pig no, he will listen and put his head down like a baby,” her mother said. “He’s loving.”
Paulisich trusts that Mia is old enough to handle the process, which more likely than not will end with Little Bitz on the dinner table.
“Kids know going in they’re not raising a pet,” the instructor said. “I call it first-year tears.”
But there’s little time to get emotional this close to the fair. The action starts at 6 a.m. Thursday, when the livestock trailers pass through the Union Avenue gates of the Kern County Fair. The work required of the students, their teachers and parents will not ease until cleanup when the fair closes on Sunday, Oct. 4.
“I’m pretty excited,” said Foothill junior Lexie Sherwood, 15. “It’s really fun, especially to see an animal you raised become something for production.”