Six straight days of gray skies and steady rainfall morphed a backyard from grassy green to a brown, muddy mess. At a time when most kids would seek the solace of a warm house after school, sixth-grader Jeremy Chambers puts on a warm coat and heavy boots for the sloppy trek to the barn to care for his pigs.
He and his parents, Jeff and Lynn, brought home two 50-pound feeder pigs in mid-December as part of Project Pig Squeal, a production-farming program developed by Cherokee and Etowah County Extension Systems and sponsored in part by the Alabama Pork Producers.
“We learned about the program at a 4-H meeting, and I thought it should be fun,” Jeremy said. “It’s hard work. I feed them and rake out the pen everyday.”
Jeremy already knew a few things about raising animals from helping his father on their poultry farm. Through Project Pig Squeal, though, he and 22 other 4-H members in Etowah and Cherokee counties are taking ownership of their own small-scale, two-pig farms.
“We intended to make this a commercial experience and as real as possible,” said Cherokee County Extension Agent Danny Miller. “Everything about it is just the way farmers would have to do.”
Students attended mandatory pork quality assurance training and learned about proper shelter, nutrition and health plans. They constructed their own pig shelters and maintained records of feed costs and caring for their animals.
On April 20, the project ends with the North Alabama 4-H Pig Squeal Show and Auction. The students will show and auction one pig and have the option to auction or keep the second. Like adult farmers, 4-H members will receive a portion of the profits from the sale after paying pork check-off and commission fees.
“Through this program, students are going to know where their food comes from, what it takes to grow their food and will always be appreciative of food producers,” said Etowah County Extension Agent Amy Burgess.
Burgess and Miller said they enjoy seeing 4-H members progress through hands-on production projects. The pair teamed up for similar projects over the years, including the Chick Chain where participants raise 24 chicks to 22 weeks old.
Miller said he hears stories from participants about how the Chick Chain and Project Pig Squeal have changed lives by encouraging children to be more active. The projects also bring families closer together, he said.
“We have memaws and papaws all over three or four counties that remember their childhood by doing these projects with their grandchildren,” Miller said.
To participate, 4-H members must either or attend school in Cherokee or Etowah counties. Children ages 9 to 19 can join 4-H. The registration fee for Project Pig Squeal is $100.
“We’ve heard from younger siblings who can’t wait until they turn 9 years old so they can participate in these programs,” said Regional Extension Agent Landon Marks.
Along with the Alabama Pork Producers, other agricultural groups are supporting the program. Auburn University donated the use of feeders for each participant. An anonymous donor gave each student transitional feed to help the pigs adapt to a new environment.
The extension agents and students hope for a big crowd of supporters and buyers at the show and auction, especially those who want to buy locally raised pork.
“It’s very difficult to find fresh pork around here,” Miller said. “We’ve stressed this is a local, safe product. We know what these kids are feeding their pigs, and we know the care they’ve received.”
Winning bidders can have their pigs processed by local butchers who will attend the April 20 auction at the Sand Rock Livestock Pavilion. The show starts at 11 a.m. The auction is at 1 p.m. The Auburn University Meats Lab will serve as a satellite auction site and buyers will later pick up their processed pigs there. The buyer pays processing fees.
To find out more about Project Pig Squeal, follow Northeast Alabama 4-H Pig Squeal Project on Facebook.