It squeals. It oinks. It grunts. And inevitably, when its time comes to enter the show ring in front of the judges, it will run in senseless circles. But once it is sold next month at the annual 4-H livestock sale at the Loudoun County Fair, its owner, Justin Wisch, will have a few hundred dollars burning a hole in his pocket.
A lot of it will go to pay back his parents for about $350 worth of feed and supplies, and a little of it will be set aside for next year's pig. Some of it will go into his savings account for college. But the rest is play money, which helps explain why 4-H clubs are growing even as farmland disappears.
"Last year, I helped pay for some of my computer," said Justin, who paid $120 for two piglets last year and sold them for a total of $940 at the 4-H sale. One of the pigs was grand champion, which raised the price to an impressive $3.25 a pound, and he had made it through the year with no vet bills. Justin, 13, is one of an increasing number of kids who are getting into 4-H clubs to raise animals even though their families aren't full-time farmers.
As the county's population mushrooms and green space turns to housing developments, parents and organizers of the 4-H Club in Loudoun County said they aren't seeing the expected decline in membership in the livestock clubs. Instead, they are seeing a resurgence, fueled by children whose families have just a few acres.
The draw, according to many parents and children, is the lesson learned from being responsible for an animal.
Patty Wade, a fair superintendent, said less than 10 percent of livestock club members are from full-time farming families--a sharp drop from 80 percent or more many years ago.
In the last year, for example, the swine club's membership more than doubled from 14 to 30. Other clubs--including the rabbit club, known as the "Cottontails"--have grown rapidly as kids discover the pleasures and labor involved in keeping an animal. Most have "farmettes," where they can set up a pen or small barn for a steer or chickens behind the house.
For Justin, whose mother has an administrative job and whose father is in the military, joining 4-H was a tradition passed down from his grandfather Johnny Cockrell, a retired construction worker who farmed on the side for years. He interested Justin and his sister Kelly, 10, in keeping two hogs and two dairy cows.
"I like doing it because it gives me something to do, and it gives me some extra spending money when it's done," Justin said. "I've tried cutting grass once before, and you put in a lot of sweat and don't get much out of it."
He used some of the money last year to buy new paint-ball equipment, such as guns, masks and paint, plus batting gloves and balls for baseball--the reward for days of rising early every morning, going down to the small barn on his grandparents' five acres in Hillsboro to water and feed the pigs and clean their pens.
But 4-H is not entirely about raising fur- and feather-bearing animals for market.
To deal with the more urbanized 4-Hers, clubs are structured around their geographic locations rather than agricultural endeavors. There is a Sterling Community Club, for example, that works with kids on sewing projects and collecting wildlife and plants.
"The thing we wrestle with is to reach more people through nonagricultural activities," said Marilyn Jarvis, who heads the county's 4-H program. "We're trying to branch out to serve a more diverse population that is more suited for a urban setting. . . . We want people to know they don't have to live on a farm to be involved in 4-H."
Photography contests are becoming more popular than the best field-crops competition. A relatively new countywide group, the Outdoor Adventure Club, started a few years ago and has about 30 youngsters who go on rock climbing, caving and hiking trips.
And even the animal clubs have branched out. The traditional blue, red and green ribbons aren't just for such traditional barnyard animals as cows, pigs, sheep and chickens anymore. Now kids are competing in such categories as llama grooming and dog obedience.
Linda Brown helps her four children raise a small zoo--45 rabbits, 12 llamas, three sheep and two horses--on their 10 acres in Bluemont. They sell their rabbits as pets to local shops after the fair, making $20 to $25 on each.
"It buys Star Wars characters," said Brown, who leads the 4-H rabbit club. "Plus, they learn to recognize the good quality stock of animals, how to reproduce them and what to feed them."
The clubs teach children how to keep records, organize their time, care for an animal and work in a group--skills many parents say are helpful and infinitely preferable to some of the knowledge they pick up watching television.
"A lot of kids come out to the fairgrounds and see their friends and classmates raising animals and they say, 'Hey, I want to do that too,' " said Cockrell, Justin's grandfather, who heads the swine club. "Their parents have moved out here to the country, and they've got eight to 10 acres to do something with."
Cockrell encourages his grandchildren not to give their pigs sentimental names--bound as they are for the butcher's block. Justin obliges him, each year naming his charges Bacon and Ham.
CAPTION: Ben Woycik trains his pig for an appearance in a 4-H show. A grand champion pig can sell for $3.25 a pound, earning its owner spending money.
CAPTION: 4-H volunteer Andrea Fitzgerald, right, shows Hunter Jenkins how to work a pig in a ring.