Summertime is fair time to me. The site of young boys and girls with their pig projects and the smell of fresh shavings in the county fair swine barn always stirs up memories.

When I was about 9 years old my Dad, brother and I visited a nearby purebred breeder to buy a boar and a couple of gilts to get us started in a 4-H project. It was one of those simple events that unknowingly sets a new course in a young person's life. In my case, this seemingly insignificant event set in motion a series of opportunities that have reverberated throughout my adult career.

I was reminded of this rather humble beginning a few weeks ago when I took a few days off and headed to Indiana for a three-breed summer type conference. As part of the trip, I also visited Rochester, IN, where my journalistic career got its start. For two summers, I worked as a fieldman, visiting breeders' herds, writing ads, reporting on state fair shows. The people I met, the experiences I had, stimulated my interest in journalism and eventually lead to my career with this magazine.

Looking back, I reminisced about those summers and the events that lead up to them. I gained a new appreciation for Dad's foresight the day we took those new gilts and boar home. Our small purebred herd became the center of our small family farm for over three decades. My brother, two sisters and I spent endless hours working with our 4-H projects. We learned a lot about pigs and even more about life's obstacles and opportunities.

These memories were reinforced later in the week as dozens of young boys and girls participated in the youth show that culminated the breed show. It was a real joy to watch. Good kids with really good hogs showing their hearts out. All had their sights set on that No. 1 pen, all knowing that only one would get the judge's nod for that coveted spot.

Where Careers Begin

Some may think it silly to bring such nostalgia into an industry magazine that focuses heavily on presenting new business management ideas, efficient pork production methods, swine herd health challenges and industry news. I don't, because I know first-hand, that's often where pork industry careers begin.

Last week I attended the International Animal Agriculture & Food Science Conference. On the roster of attendees, I recognized dozens of university and company research scientists, extension specialists and other professionals that started their pork industry careers, show stick in hand and at the tail end of a 4-H or FFA barrow or gilt.

I can't tell you how many times during an interview, someone has pointed fondly to a small trophy on a bookshelf or to a picture on the wall with a favorite project pig. If they were committed, and perhaps a little lucky, they are posed proudly behind a grand champion. But many aren't. Most don't remember the champions so much as they do the experiences they had and the people they met.

I fear that the value of these youth pig projects to the larger pork industry has been under-appreciated in recent decades.

Youth competition tantalizes young minds, teaches basic production skills and stimulates their competitive spirit. When they fall short, they learn to brush themselves off, shake the winner's hand in good sportsmanship and begin to formulate a plan for next year's project.

Good for Agriculture

The breeds represented at the Indiana show were Chester Whites, Spots and Poland Chinas. Some refer to them as “minor” breeds. I don't, because in the minds and hearts of the youngsters showing nearly 200 barrows and gilts in that junior show, there are no minor breeds.

Yesterday, I talked with Darrell Anderson, CEO at the National Swine Registry (Hampshires, Yorkshires, Durocs, Landrace), and was heartened to hear that over 500 kids participated in a similar summer event they call the National Junior Summer Spectacular. Anderson says their Junior Association has grown from 400 to 2,050 members just this past year. “I believe it's the fastest-growing junior association in all of agriculture,” he says.

Why? “I think these kids were sitting there waiting for someone to pay attention to them,” says Anderson.

Good for you all, good for the kids, good for the pork industry.

Youth pig projects are not limited to purebreds. There are thousands of top quality crossbreds shown annually, as well.

My father gave me a great gift the day he decided to invest in those two gilts and a boar. Unknowingly, he launched my career. Sadly, he passed away shortly before I finished writing this month's column. I would like to dedicate it to his memory. Thanks Dad.