Pigging out at the Northeast Florida Fair
I’m sick of desserts and will probably remain that way for a week. This past Friday, I was part of the tasting panel of judges for the baked goods entries in the Home Arts section of the Northeast Florida Fair in Callahan. I’ve participated as a judge before in various categories like horticulture and photography, but this year I got brave enough to sign up for the baked goods judging job. Little did I know that this year there would be more baked goods entered than ever before – 49 of them! My panel mate, Marie Pollock, and I had to taste and evaluate every one of them. Forty-nine bites of sugar and fat-filled treats: cakes, pies, brownies, and cookies of all descriptions! About halfway through, it became an ordeal, but Marie and I soldiered on.
Afterward, we needed a walk, and the empty fairgrounds were ours to explore.
The fair officially opened that night, so already the rides were set up and the animal barns were full of residents for the upcoming livestock events. I was particularly interested in seeing the pigs, and not only because I felt like one after the dessert judging section. I was hoping to find the one that a young 4-H member I had recently met was entering in the show. We did find some pigs, but not hers. We also saw some cattle, goats, sheep, chickens and rabbits.
The goals of raising an award-winning pig center on its size, physical condition, proper amount of fat and good meat, etc., and also how well it is handled in the show ring. The pigs are usually not named, and certainly not made into pets. Raising such an animal teaches 4-H members many useful skills. In addition, the money they make from their prize-winning, auctioned pig could be significant. But it’s hard for me to imagine getting to know the personality and behavior of an individual animal, and even training it a bit to walk in a show arena, then watching it be auctioned off for its meat and led away to a truck for processing. That is what raising livestock is, and I understand the goals of 4-H and applaud them, but no, I could never do it myself.
For one thing, I got to know one pig personally many years ago in my days at Marine World Africa USA in California. At Marine World, all my friends were animal trainers – of dolphins, whales, elephants, chimpanzees, parrots; you name it and we had them. It was a different time, with different sensibilities about animals in captivity. But then, animal shows and circuses were highly regarded.
Our trainers were deeply committed to making the lives of their charges comfortable, interesting, and fun, and they developed strong personal bonds with individual animals. In that light, when Sue, an animal handler, decided to buy her own pig for training, Marine World encouraged it and supported her in her effort. Her pig, Charlotte, was as quick to learn new behaviors as any of the other animals in our care. Before long, Charlotte would respond to voice commands and hand signals and knew dozens of tricks like opening doors, kneeling, sitting, waving, vocalizing – the works. Sue and Charlotte visited many schools in the San Francisco Bay area to show off their skills and to talk about animal behavior and conservation.
As Charlotte got bigger and bigger, Marine World even provided a van strong enough to carry her. But disaster struck. Charlotte developed cancer and despite intensive treatment from the vets at the University of California she could not be saved.
I realize that raising livestock is not the same as owning a pet, and certainly not anything like the experiences I had at long-gone Marine World. The livestock on display at the fair in Callahan are fine representatives of their genre, really fun to look at, and entering their barns is a very different experience than anything here on the island. The fair also has rides, food stalls, displays of home goods and such, and is well worth a visit. The fair is running through October 19 and you can find a full schedule at the website for the Northeast Florida Fair. I encourage you to check it out. And if you want to buy a 4-H pig or calf for its local farm-raised meat, the public auction is 7 p.m. on Oct. 18. They will take it to the slaughterhouse for you, but count me out on that one.