Olivia Wilson has made a habit of not naming her 4-H animals until about a week before the Teton County Fair.
At 18 and in her 10th and final year of the program, she’s got the routine down of raising a pig and a lamb. Hours of feeding and watering and exercise go into raising good stock. Hours are spent in front of her father and alongside her siblings practicing show ring technique. Hours of walking pigs around their Alta farm is part of the protocol, as are hours on a bike, riding alongside her lamb to build endurance and tone.
But getting attached — that’s one thing she’s learned not to do. Part of the process is saying goodbye to the stock she spends months raising, this year named Sea Cracker, a 267-pound pig, and Sea Cookie, her 125-pound lamb. (She went with a spin off the famous racehorse Seabiscuit.)
“It is easier living on a farm because we raise sheep,” Olivia said. “But it’s a little different than that. They’re not pets, they’re livestock animals. But you spend so much time training them.”
The end of months of work is an auction at which livestock is sold to generous buyers seated in stands above the Hardeman Auction Arena. The money, for the Wilsons and most 4-H kids, goes into a college fund or toward livestock and supplies for the next 4-H round.
It helps pay for college, Olivia’s dad, Meredith, explained. At 8, the age when kids can officially join 4-H, each child gets a 529 Fund, Meredith Wilson said. The deal is that his children can use their 4-H earnings only for college, for next year’s livestock project — or, if they come up with a really good proposal, for a splurge. The latter is a bit of a stretch. None of the six have been able to craft a proposal that has won the stamp of approval from their parents, Olivia said, giving her dad a smile and a side glance.
Lessons in the basics
While the six Wilson kids have learned to manage their own finances, money management skill is an “ancillary benefit,” Meredith Wilson said. The program has also offered them a broad base of knowledge: All of the Wilson children can hem pants and sew a button; they can whip up baked goods; they know their way around a horse.
“I just wanted them to know the basics,” mom Dana Wilson said.
It’s paid off. Twenty-three-year-old Gabe Wilson, the oldest of the six, became a guy in high demand while on an overseas trip, being the only one who knew how to work a needle and thread.
The diversity of 4-H programs is often what attracts kids to join. They can try many things — raising livestock, sewing a quilt, even studying bees, should they please — and take their skills with them after they age out of the program.
“You get to do so many amazing things you normally wouldn’t get to do anywhere else,” 14-year-old Eliza Wilson said.
Alta teen Joni Moyer, 17, is in her sixth year of 4-H. Last week she was at the Heritage Arena showing in lamb and swine, outside on the grass showing her 3-year-old Lab in the 4-H Dog Show, and had a few items for display in the exhibit hall, including a poster she made for the 4-H Leadership Club.
This year Moyer was selected as one of nine from the county who took a trip to Washington, D.C., to learn the inner workings of the U.S. government.
“I’ve learned a bunch from the time I started until now — it’s crazy,” Moyer said. “It teaches a lot of responsibility.”
Wins and losses
4-H is a competitive program. Those who join and work hard can win big. Those who join and work hard can also lose. Building the wherewithal to handle disappointment is just part of the program.
The Wilsons not only train together, they compete together and against one another, showing their pigs and lambs against their siblings’ stock. Although Amelia, 16, prods her dad during practice to name who did the best, she enjoys having her siblings alongside her in the show arena.
“It’s kind of easier because your animal is used to those pigs,” she said.
The Wilsons also regularly face off against the Castagno family, a Moran clan that supplies many 4-H’ers with pigs through Castagno Outfitters. Meredith Wilson said the Castagnos, while fierce competition, have been gracious in offering tips on how to raise swine.
Ryan Castagno, whose three sons compete in 4-H Swine and Beef, said lending a hand ups everyone’s game.
The Castagnos tend to be stiff competitors in the ring — this year Kirby Castagno, the middle Castagno son, took Grand Champion Showmanship in the senior division of the 4-H Swine Show, bringing home a big purple ribbon and a belt buckle. Amelia Wilson took Reserve Champion in the same division.
“It’s healthy competition for sure,” said Kirby, 17. “When you’re out of the show ring, you’re buddy-buddy. But when you’re showing, you’re showing.”
The show ring comes with specific instructions. Competitors’ eyes should be locked on the judge. The animal is expected to stay between the judge and the competitor, meaning the participant needs to adjust accordingly. Questions should be answered in complete sentences, with a “sir” or ma’am” tacked on the end.
During practice at their ranch in Alta, Meredith Wilson joked he “likes that ‘sir’ stuff” he was hearing in their responses.
But even with hours of practice, the judge almost always comes up with something that stumps the competitors. This year’s toughie in the swine arena: Between which ribs is a cut made for a loin cut? The answer, Kirby correctly stated, is between the 11th and 12th rib.
While winners are whisked in front of a camera to stand, smiles wide, next to a judge and their show animal, the disappointments met by some competitors teach them as much as belt buckles and blue ribbons.
“Don’t ever think just because you’re at the top you’ve got it wrapped up,” Meredith Wilson told the kids during practice. “Never stop showing.”
Learning can be hard
Olivia admitted they’ve learned some hard lessons with that along the way.
“For a couple of years we won a lot of the lamb shows,” she said.
The confidence led to some overconfidence, and some disappointing shows put them back in check, she said. But while the kids work for months for a day of showing, the ribbons aren’t what makes the experience, Castagno said.
“As long as you showed up and you’re happy with what you brought, that’s all that really matters,” he said.
It’s a lesson Olivia has perfected in her decade in 4-H.
“This year my little sister won — and I’m not just saying this — I’m happy with how I did and I’m happy for her,” she said.
The end of the Teton County Fair is the hardest part for 4-H’ers.
Swine and lamb 4-H’ers have spent the summer raising their animals, typically picking up lambs and pigs in April and May. Those who raise beef start even earlier, back in the fall.
“We don’t go anywhere during the summer,” Olivia said. “We can’t go anywhere until after fair.
“The anticipation for fair week is like Christmas,” she said. “Gideon gets so excited.”
Gideon is the youngest of the Wilson crew, at 12 years old. In this year’s Intermediate 4-H Swine Showmanship competition, his hog, “Blue Butt Betsy,” took Reserve Champion.
For the Wilsons this year was wrapped up in one day of showing pigs and lambs. By the end of Thursday their hard work was over, their ribbons were hung on the handmade posters fixed over their pig and lamb pens. They spent the following day enjoying the scene — visiting booths, taking in shows, riding carnival rides. Friday afternoon was their last time in the ring, that time for an auction.
4-H’ers learn leadership and speaking skills. Livestock kids learn about animal husbandry and associated livestock industries. Those who sell animals in the auction learn a proper thank-you, each delivering a gift and shaking the hand of the buyer.
“I see the value of this as a way to develop character in kids,” Meredith Wilson said.
The auction ring — and the day after, when the animals are loaded up onto a trailer and hauled away for processing — is when kids face the toughest lesson of all: saying goodbye.
“I cry for like three hours every year,” Amelia said. “It’s really hard for me. But it would be harder if I didn’t live on a farm.”
Her sister, Eliza, once tried to hold back her tears so hard she rubbed her contacts out of place. It doesn’t get easier, most said. They know their animals well. Sea Cracker loves to be scratched. Honey, Amelia’s pig, was named because she’s so sweet. Sea Biscuit, Eliza’s pig, has wagged her tail to tunes on the radio before.
They remember past animals. Like Donovan, a gilt that was given a barrow’s name because a younger Amelia was still learning how to tell the difference in the sexes. Donovan peed in her boots three times the year she raised him, she said, smiling and rolling her eyes.
But processing the meat is part of livestock production, they said.
“They’re not pets, they’re livestock animals,” Olivia said. “But it’s a little bit different than that. You spend so much time training them.
“I tear up. It’s definitely sad. But I know that I got them for this.”
One last year
It’s also a big year for Olivia; this is her last. She will be back at the fairgrounds in the future, helping her younger siblings feed and water, but she just wrapped up her last as an official 4-H’er — a “bittersweet” feeling, she said. In the fall she plans to attend Utah State University alongside her older sister, Isabella.
“Even before I was 8, I was helping my other siblings,” she said. “I’ll still come back and be involved in it. But it’s kind of scary. I plan a lot of my life around it.
“This was a really cool summer job for this long.”