When it comes to grilling in Wisconsin, it’s not all hamburgers and brats — even though we’re known for that. I hope you liked the pizza recipe last week as a change of pace. Another popular grilling choice at our house is pork chops. Why not? There’s plenty of pork in Wisconsin. In fact, the National Agriculture Statistics Service (NASS)’ Wisconsin Field Office says Wisconsin ranked 18th in the country for pork production with 536,000 pigs processed in-state.
And the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) says 2,300 pork operations exist in Wisconsin, with most in the southern third of the state. More pigs leave Wisconsin, however, as 881,000 pigs left Wisconsin in 2006.
But not all pigs are raised in big operations. Instead, some — as in the movie Babe – get pretty friendly with their handlers and become celebrities. :) Well, not a big screen celebrity. These pigs are called “Show Pigs” and they’re the projects that 4H and your local county fair are made of.
Since we have some Show Pigs a couple miles away from us, I went to visit Ken and Marcia Luety’s farm in Clinton to get the behind-the-scenes story on Show Pigs for those of us who haven’t shown a pig at a fair.
Ken’s been raising pigs for over 40 years (along with a small herd of cows and managing 4,000 acres of corn and soybeans). Our area county fair, the Rock County 4-H Fair, is only two weeks away (kicks off July 23) – so Ken explained how a 4-H’er gets to this point.
“You buy your pigs about four months before your show or fair,” Ken said. “So usually we’re buying at the end of March or beginning of April when the pigs are 8-10 weeks old and [weigh] about 50 pounds. You’ll pay about $100 and up. You can find pigs via Show Pig producers. At this point you’re looking for muscle, big bones, and feet and leg placement is critical, since at this point anything wrong gets worse later.
“You’re focused on buying the right pig for your child to do well in competition. Because of that, we generally buy cross-bred pigs to win the whole show. More than half of pure-breds have droopy ears. That causes a minor difficulty in seeing. Cross-breds have erect ears. We buy a variety of breeds, including Durocs, Berkies (Berkshires) and Hereford.”
Now that the 4-Her has his or her pig, it’s time to start learning the lessons that the Show Pig project is all about: work ethic and responsibility.
“When you first get the pig, it doesn’t eat or drink very much at that age,” says Ken. “The kids’ job is to keep them warm, dry and clean and feed them. Small pigs will eat 1-2 pounds of food per day – while the bigger pig will eat up to 8 pounds of food. The young pigs are like a newborn baby — they eat, sleep and poop. Most pigs will gain 1.7-2 pounds per day of the rest of its life. So a 280-pound pig is good for fairs.
“Relatively soon the kids start getting their pigs out of their pens and weighing them, so the pigs aren’t scared. All the pigs are kept in separate pens and hand watered so that you’re aware of what pigs are taking in (food and water-wise).
“Every pig gets walked and weighed every day. Kids will walk the pigs — 15-20 minutes per pig — as training for the show ring. It’s my bonding time working with Ali (Ken’s youngest daughter) at home during morning or night walks with pigs. A pig is smart enough that you can teach him to walking for the show ring pretty fast. Some are naturals. Some are slower.”
Ken explained that there’s more kids doing more shows, so they get to learn more and meet more kids with the same interests. “It used to be that you went to the county fair, then if you’re lucky – the State Fair. Now there’s 11 shows in 10 locations, thanks to the Wisconsin Show Pig Association.” There are other opportunities in other states, as well.
This year Ali has seven pigs. She’ll be showing two barrows (a castrated male pig) and two gilts (a female pig that has not given birth) at the Rock County 4-H Fair. Ken said that Clinton area kids account for 20-40% of the average 400 Show Pigs at Rock County Fair and about 20% of the Wisconsin State Fair. Ali, like all her fellow competitors, are hoping to show well. But not all will win, of course (another life lesson learned).
“Not every kid is rewarded,” said Ken. “But kids are excited and know they have a chance.” Those who do win can win $250-300 on the low end. Then again Ken has seen a Grand Champion fetch about $4,000 at county fair. And, at the State Fair, the Governor’s Auction prices can range from $3,000 to $25,000 for Grand Champion. And it’s not just grocery stores buying the pigs at auction. Anyone can come to a fair, buy a pig at auction and stock their freezer.
Then there’s the last lesson, after the pig is sold: “Most pigs don’t come home from the county fair,” said Ken. “In fact, they never come home from the State Fair. For the younger kids (you can start showing at county fairs at age 9), it’s harder to part with the pig. But kids learn alot and have fun at these shows. It keeps the competition in perspective.”
Who knew pigs teach life lessons? As a salute to these Show Pigs, I offer up a pork chop recipe (below) and some “pig trivia” from Ken.
Rosemary Pork Chops with Pears
Time: 30 minutes
4 pork chops, bone-in (I find that offers more flavor)
2 Tblsp. sea salt
4 Tblsp. olive oil
2 pears, diced
1 cup water
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
4 Tblsp. sugar
Begin with your pear preparation, so the pears and pork chops can cook basically the same amount of time (30 minutes). Dice the pears (one pear = 2 servings) and put into a sauce pan with the water, cinnamon and sugar.
While that’s cooking, start your grill and prepare your pork chops. Arrange your chops on a plate and brush or drizzle with olive oil on both sides. Then sprinkle sea salt and rosemary leaves on one side. It’s a simple, yet flavorful way to enjoy your pork chops. Let stand a few minutes.
Then grill your chops for 20-30 minutes on a medium to high flame (your choice). Repeat salt and rosemary step when you flip the pork chops over.
Now enjoy your pork chops while you learn a little pig trivia from Ken:
- A pig is not a pig! Given a chance, the pig will be fussy with what he eats and not overeat!
- Pigs have a sweet tooth. The Luety pigs like marshmallows.
- Pigs don’t sweat. They cool themselves by breathing. If hot, the first thing to water is their noses.
- Pigs get sunburned. You need to keep them out of sun – especially if they’ve just been clipped.
- Pigs are funny out of the wash pen. They’re like little kids squealing because they’re squeaky clean.
- Pigs like to look good, too. They’re clipped and use lotions before it’s “show time.”
Have fun at the fair!!