Maryland Journal

The Baltimore Sun

On a sweltering July day, Becky Remsberg climbs into a pen with her two black-and-white pigs, Humphrey and Javalina, and sprays them with water.

The two Hampshire pigs loll in the sawdust, mustering an occasional grunt of satisfaction, as they cool down during a break at the Harford County Farm Fair.

With the arrival of the fair, the animals' days are numbered, and Becky knows exactly where her pigs will end up.

"They're going into someone's stomach," the 10-year-old Fallston resident said, tapping the 297-pound Humphrey with a plastic rod. "This one is going into mine."

For youngsters from farm families across the region, the county fair is the culmination of months - sometimes years - of nurturing their cows, pigs and sheep to be judged against the county's finest. Before the grand showing, they shower care upon their animals, scrubbing them, brushing their tails, scrubbing their hooves - all in pursuit of the blue ribbon.

But winning the grand prize usually means the animal ends up on the dinner table of the highest bidder.

"I don't feel sad about eating them. They're always going to be a part of me," Becky said as she rubbed her stomach.

Life and death is a constant of farm life.

It's a difficult lesson that children inevitably learn, said Willard Lemaster, director of the 4-H/Future Farmers of America division at the Maryland State Fair.

"It's just part of the circle of life and also part of the food chain," Lemaster said. "These individuals learn where their food comes from."

While Becky tended to the pigs, her older sister, Emma, waxed philosophical about the fate of their beloved animals.

"We like animals a lot," the 11-year-old said, with the new Harry Potter book propped in front of her. "We name them all and spend lots of time with them, and then we eat them."

With nearly 70 animals on their Fallston farm, the Remsberg children watch the sheep grow, tend to the younglings and then have fresh lamb chops for dinner.

"The ones we eat are some of the nicest animals," said Bennett, Becky's 13-year-old brother.

This year, Paige Rickey had to part with her steer - named Pot Roast - at the Harford fair. For nearly a year, the 11-year-old from Whiteford fed Pot Roast corn and grain, walked him and even talked to him every day.

"I told her she could keep him if she buys all the feed and she decided against it," said her father, Jay Rickey. "She has to understand we can't have all of them as pets. We have to sell some of them."

At least in Paige's case, there's a trade-off for parting ways with Pot Roast.

"If I do well with the steer, I can get a heifer and keep her forever," Paige said. "I can't keep the steer because it can't have babies."

By taking care of animals, the youngsters learn about the food chain and genetics, and also realize the responsibility of taking care of livestock, Lemaster said.

"A lot of individuals raise money for college or that first vehicle or to purchase animals to reinvest in next year's projects," Lemaster said.

Despite the potential of a valuable lesson in economics, parting can be excruciating. After buying five steers at the auction last year, J. Robert Hooper, a state senator from Harford, saw children who raised them burst into tears.

"It was like, 'No, no, don't look at me - I won't eat your steer. I promise. I'll give it to someone else,'" he said. "It's neat, though. They'll come to you after they've gotten through the tears and give you a hug and say, 'Thank you for buying my steer.'

"That is the learning part of life," Hooper said. "There are some things you have to give up as you go along through life."

Jay and Jill Rickey, who raise sheep and cows, were involved in 4-H as children, just like their daughter is today. Paige has learned not to name animals that will be sold, to avoid emotional attachment.

There are cases when saying goodbye is not a mournful occasion. Trevor Lewis recalls the sense of relief that prevailed when he sold his pigs during the 2006 Harford fair.

"Last year, the pigs were mean," the 13-year-old Pylesville resident said. "It wasn't hard to sell them."

When the big moment arrived for Humphrey and Javalina, Becky Remsberg guided them into a pen for the judge to view. However, it turned out that the Remsberg children did their job too well: Humphrey and Javalina were deemed too big to qualify for the market auction where participants sell their livestock.

In a consolation of sorts, Humphrey placed first in the overweight pigs competition, beating two other contestants, including Javalina, who placed last and was sold to a family to be turned into sausage.

For now, the Remsbergs get to keep Humphrey. But eventually he, too, will end up on the kitchen table.

"I'll be having scrapple for weeks," Becky said.

madison.park@baltsun.com

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