Swine Judge Looks for His 'Linebacker'

8/9/2014 7:00 AM
By Rick Hemphill Maryland Correspondent

MCHENRY, Md. — When Colby Ferguson judges a pig show, he keeps football players in mind.

“We used to want the body-builder style of pig, but now we are using the football player,” said Ferguson, as he judged the swine show at the Garrett County Agricultural Fair on July 31. “The pig we are looking for is massive, big-structured and he’s stout, but he is still athletic.”

On a cool, crisp day, 130 4-H and FFA exhibitors presented their pigs in the showmanship and market hog competitions. Ferguson’s review of both the pigs and the presenters lasted more than six hours.

In the showmanship events, Ferguson taught the exhibitors as part of the process.

“It is a lot harder to review the kids than pigs,” Ferguson said. “The kids are super and they are attentive, really teachable kids. I judge the young people on how they present their pig to me and how they move it around the ring, as well as how well they have taken care of them at home. They did a great job.”

It’s all the more impressive considering the amount of competition in the show ring and the difficulty controlling a market-sized pig.

“I have noticed that the younger and more excited the presenter, the faster their pig tends to move and the less controlled it is,” Ferguson said.

Emily Fratz won the showmanship competition, with reserve grand champion going to Bryson Wilt. The champion junior showman was Ty Duckfield, with Madison O’Brien taking reserve honors. Jeremy Ashby took the reserve in the senior division and McKenzie Wilt was the reserve champion in the intermediate.

After a short break, each pig was brought in again for the market show.

“We will be comparing these pigs to the ideal market hog,” Ferguson said. “We want muscle for our pork chops and our bacon, but I am looking for that big square top and a lot of muscle shape in the ham. Then they have to be structurally correct and move around the ring with some body and base width to them. They come at you wide and walk away from you square, not bowed or pigeon-toed, and then work into a good body and good rib with a barrel. Finally, I want them to look like they have grown well with a fresh and youthful look to them.”

Ferguson judged his first show in 1991 and readily admits hogs have changed.

“Whatever the Corn Belt dictates as the best type of hog is what we see,” Ferguson said. “Since the mid-2000s, we have gone from the extremely heavy muscle and very ripped-up lean hog that wasn’t the best eating to a hog with more fat on it, and the marbling in the meat is better. This gives us hogs with more thickness. More length and thickness means more bacon. The highest value on a hog is bacon and everybody wants bacon on everything from bacon cheeseburgers to biscuits.”

The big-bodied “defensive lineman” Ferguson was looking for was Justin Wilhem’s grand champion market hog, while the reserve champion belonged to Nicholas Ahern. Ryan Vannosdeln had the champion lightweight and Wyatt Wright showed the county-bred grand champion swine.

Swine were only part of the Garrett County Agricultural Fair.

“Our 4-H and FFA kids are very active and a very important part of the fair,” said Debbie Barnard, livestock coordinator and fair board director, who tallied the winners throughout the show. “We have kids that do everything from robotics to the fashion show on Monday night and costume animal show on Friday. We have so many things including a large rabbit show, poultry entries, a big variety of baked goods, horticulture items, flowers, plants, crafts and much more for people to see.

“We have one of the largest groups of market hogs we have ever had, and in addition to the 130 pigs, we have 35 lambs, 63 goats and close to 90 steers” that were sold last weekend, she added.

Barnard said the fair is a great learning experience, especially for children.

“One of our kid favorites is a big corn bin. The 3- to 6-year-old kids think it is the best thing ever and they go kicking and screaming when it’s time to leave,” she said. “Parents get excited and want to put one in their backyard, but I have to tell them that they will draw large numbers of deer and bear up here and it isn’t for everyone.”

The fair is slowly changing, though.

“Looking forward, we have to balance the animals and the carnival,” Barnard said. “Our carnival has grown quite a bit and we have to give some of our flat space for the additional rides. We are up on a mountain so we don’t have a lot of flat space and we need to find different and interesting entertainment.”

Accommodating change is a challenge, and like most fairs, this one has its traditions.

“I have been here for a long time and see the second and third generations coming here,” Barnard said. “My dad showed at the very first fair in the mid-1950s and now his great-grandchildren are showing. We work very hard all year to keep this tradition going. We realize how important this week is for the agricultural families, so keeping that tradition growing and strong is what we want to do for the next group of kids.”

Ferguson looks forward to the next group of kids he’ll judge.

“I judged my first show in 1991, 23 years ago,” he said. “The youth development programs such as 4-H and FFA are the life blood of agriculture. With fewer and fewer people farming full time, the show process is a way for people who don’t live on a farm to have their children take part in these development programs. I see the showing side being very strong for years to come, maybe even stronger than the commercial side.”

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