Lynden Sisters Raise Pigs for Fair
One of the more anticipated events in August is the six-day-long Northwest Washington Fair, held in Lynden for more than 100 years. For sisters Becky and Abigail (Abby) Thompson, the fair, both say, is the best week of the entire year.
It’s not elephant ears or rides like the whirling Gravitron that draw Becky, 14, and Abby, 11, to the fair, set for Aug. 13–18 this year. It’s the animals. Over the past six years, Abby and Becky have “shown” a variety of animals at the fair — displayed them in a competition before judges.
This year, it’s mainly pigs. For most kids, raising an animal means caring for a pet — a dog, cat, or hamster. Not for the Thompsons. When it comes to getting their pigs ready for the fair, the Thompsons mean business. Since February, the two have been feeding, grooming, and training pigs for their one day in the spotlight — when the pigs will be shown, judged, then hopefully auctioned and sold for market. Becky and Abby know the reality: The pigs they’ve spent six months raising will be butchered soon after for pork, ham, and bacon. That’s farm life. The money the girls earn is earmarked for college.
For generations of Lynden kids, raising and showing animals at the fair has practically been a rite of passage. The fair lasts only six days, but the girls’ involvement with the local 4-H club is year-round. The club is one of the principal youth development organizations in the nation. It’s a big deal in Lynden. With about 65 children and teen members, Becky and Abby’s 4-H club, Country Partners, is the largest 4-H group in Whatcom County. With so many participants, parents and volunteers take on different guiding roles, such as swine leader. To Becky and Abby, 4-H (for Head, Hearts, Hands and Health) has been a big part of their lives — Becky was 8 years old when she joined the club and Abby was 5.
This year at the fair, Becky and Abby are enthusiastic for the competition. Becky is showing swine and beef and Abby is showing swine and her almost-4-year-old cat.
Four Weeks Old
Roughly 20 Pounds
The Thompson’s live on Lynden’s Double Ditch Road, in a large, more-than-century-old house on some property. On this March day, Abby and Becky are dressed similarly to what they would wear when showing at the fair — a colorful flannel shirt tucked into jeans and a fancy belt. Their mom, April, is here but dad, Ted, is working — he’s a pastor at North Country Christ the King Church in Lynden. He does a lot with the animals, including veterinarian duties.
Since she disliked sports (unlike her sister), the interest in joining 4-H began with Becky, the older sister. “I wanted to try and give Becky another outlet where she could invest her time and grow her character,” April says. Since joining 4-H, Becky has been inspired to become a veterinarian technician someday. Abby also has a passion for animals. This is Abby’s second year showing pigs and Becky’s third. In fact, Becky bred the first pig she started out with, Penelope, resulting in 17 piglets. Becky showed one of those piglets, named Bounty, last year. Her parents bought Bounty at the fair, and then they bred her. Abby and Becky will each choose one member of the 12-piglet litter to prep for this year’s fair. The piglets are 50 percent Berkshire, 25 percent Hampshire, and 25 percent Yorkshire, meaning they’re crosses, or Exotic, offering a range of colorings and body features to hopefully catch the judges’ eye.
Five months before the fair begins, the piglets are just four weeks old, weighing roughly 20 pounds and living in the pen with Bounty.
The girls are keeping a close watch on the pigs and already starting to see different personalities and physical characteristics develop. The pigs are numbered on their back with marker to help tell them apart.
Six Weeks Old
Roughly 33 Pounds
Just a week earlier, the pigs weighed in at approximately 33 pounds. The piglets have been cooped up with Bounty this entire time and she’s exhausted — whenever she adjusts or lays down, one of the piglets tries to feed from, nibble on or walk across her. So the Thompson’s decide to help the weaning process by moving the younglings out to what they call “the summer house” — a reinforced shed hooked up with water, connected to an outdoor pen area. To help protect the pigs and their food, rat traps lay in parts of the shed the pigs can’t reach. Bare-handed, Abby picks up a freshly-caught mouse that she says is still warm. Clearly, the girls aren’t squeamish.
Koby, the 3-year-old red Australian Shepard-Husky, is attentive and wide-eyed as the pigs get moved away from their mom. He likes herding them. Becky and April snag each of the 12 pigs, one by one, jogging it over to Abby in the pen. It’s a comic struggle. “It’s like carrying a 35-pound sack of flour, except it’s squirming and squealing the whole time,” Becky says. Bounty hates hearing her babies shriek, so it’s best to do this process quickly. Eventually, Bounty will relax and not worry about them.
Eight Weeks Old
40 – 48 Pounds
The pigs now look less like babies and more like grown animals. Between 40 and 48 pounds, their bodies are nearly all muscle, sculpting their overall shape. By now, Becky and Abby have scoped out the pigs they want. And, of course, the pigs have grown into their names. Becky has her sights set on Queen B, a natural leader among the bunch. Abby has also picked her pig, Remington. Both pigs have distinguishable black markings on them, which could stand out to a judge during showing. Playful as ever, the whole litter has gotten used to digging their noses in the dirt and eating every blade of grass in sight.
With heavy involvement and responsibilities in 4-H, it helps that April homeschools the girls. Still, that doesn’t mean their schedules aren’t stacked. Though April is the primary teacher, Becky and Abby also attend classes with Meridian Parent Partnership Program (MP3) on Mondays and Wednesdays. On each of these days, the sisters head to five classes: writing, robotics or drama, math or art, science and technology. They finish with classes by noon during the remaining homeschooling on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. “What’s nice,” Becky says, “is that we can take breaks to go hang out with the pigs for a little bit.”
“I love to burn some energy by running out by the barn,” Abby says.
11 Weeks Old
75 – 78 Pounds
Becky points to a small water area she created in the mud for the pigs to cool off, since the weather has been hot. Turns out, sunburns are quite common on pigs, especially on the white (pinkish) skin. Oftentimes, the girls lather the pigs in sunscreen and Dollar Store aloe vera lotion for protection and moisturizer. In terms of weight, the pigs are gaining 1.7 pounds a day. They’ll get up to two in about a month. The food fueling the pounds is High Octane Champion Drive, a dry formula packed with protein and nutrients. Also, Remington’s name has been switched to Loki (the family has been watching Thor and Avengers movies) and Queen B is referred to as Queeny. Loki now weighs 75 pounds and Queeny weighs 78. To practice showing, the girls graze the pigs with show sticks (or whips, though they’re not actually used to whip) on different parts of their body to command directions. Marshmallows, the pigs’ favorite, are used as treats during training. Queeny and Loki will associate marshmallows with different orders.
14 Weeks Old
112 – 120 Pounds
Abby and Becky are dressed in full fair attire — Abby is especially excited, because she gets to wear some rare mascara. It’s early June. At 14 weeks old, Queeny is weighing in at 112 pounds and Loki is at 120. Becky is now especially bonding with Queeny. Lately, the girls have ramped up their training with twice-daily sessions — once in the morning and once at night — as the August 13 fair opening date draws near.
At the fair, surrounded by other pigs and contestants at the same time, Becky and Queeny and Abby and Loki will face judges in two situations: type, and fit and show. Type showcases the build of the pig — squatty, dark, long, muscle-defined, etc. Fit and show is all about you and how well you can direct the pig around the show ring. Abby and Becky know all sorts of tips, but mainly it’s important to keep eye contact with the judge the entire time. “And don’t forget about making a ham sandwich,” Abby says. “Always keep the pig in between you and the judge.”
On their final day, after their time in front of judges, the pigs will go to auction. Abby and Becky have prepped for this, too. Before the fair, they’ll make brochures to reach out to local companies for sponsorships. It costs between $400 and $500 dollars to raise a pig, which can be sold at the auction at the end of the fair for roughly $600 to $900. But sponsors can help the 4-H participants make more of a profit. “They’re investing in the kids’ future,” April says. Becky and Abby are hoping to sell their pigs for around $2.75 per pound. The minimum and maximum weights are 215 pounds and 330 pounds.
Once sold at the auction, Queeny, Loki, and other pigs will be spray-painted to determine what meat processing company they’ll head to. The girls say that it can be difficult seeing their pig marked up, knowing it will soon be butchered. But they take pride in how they treat the pigs leading up to that — they’re pretty pampered. “You take the good moments as they are,” Abby says. “And if you keep showing, you know moments like that can happen over and over,” Becky says.
They know that just months from now, the cycle begins anew. Becky and Abby will breed another pig, and their farm’s population will once again swell, adding to the family menagerie that already includes a dog, a bunny, two cats, a kitten, and 15 chickens. Come February, they’ll raise, train and prep piglets, looking forward to any challenges, and improving their technique for another round of showing pigs at the fair.
To continue reading our feature on the Northwest Washington Fair, click here.