Melvin

Very soon the fields will dry (there's been a lot of rain through the Midwest in recent days) and the corn and soybean planting will start, with tractors working late into the night, headlights ablaze, to beat the May 10 deadline most farmers set for themselves.

Meantime, aside from getting the equipment ready, there's not much to do in the American Gothic hamlets of the Corn Belt. They cut the lawn, drink coffee and, evidently, gossip a good deal, waiting for the weather to be just right -- warm, not too wet, not too dry.

The idle wagging of tongues has become so pervasive around this east-central Illinois town that an anonymous advertiser put a large notice in the Ford County Press last week, deploring it all. "Take a good look at yourself in the mirror and think about the things that you have done yourself," the nameless moralist advised.

Well, not everyone is blabbing, and you only had to stop by the Ford County fairgrounds last Saturday night to test the point. What was going on was a weanling show pig sale, which on its face may sound a little absurd but really isn't when you give it some thought.

Begin by asking where yesterday's ham sandwich came from. It came from one of the millions of hogs that were raised last year on a farm, much like the spreads around Melvin. In 1979, U.S. farmers raised $8.8 billion worth of hogs, more than a third of them in Iowa and Illinois alone.

This doesn't just happen. From one generation to the next, farmers see some profit in devoting their lives to raising the hogs that become the hams, roasts and bacon that U.S. consumers devour. The chain starts at places like the fairgrounds here in Melvin, where farm youngsters take the plunge.

For 12 years now, some of the area's better-known hog breeders have been staging a spring auction of young pigs that kids in 4-H Club and Future Farmers of America projects raise and groom for showing at the fairs in July and August.

Once these fresh-faced youngsters get a hog -- usually they come with a parent, who springs for the first one -- another is sure to follow. Then another and still another and pretty soon a neophyte pork producer is born. Tomorrow's BLT sandwich is on its way.

"The sale here has an outstanding record of county fair wins," said Gail Bressner, a farmer from Chenoa. "We use top breeding stock, and while we're competing with each other, we're working for the same goal."

The goal was explained by the auctioneer, a spiffy fellow from Indiana who was wearing a gray Stetson and a rust-colored down jacket to ward off the chill. Before the bidding began, he told the several hundred kids and parents: "What we're doing plays a vital part in our industry in getting these young people going . . . This is one of the biggest crowds I've seen."

Bressner, speaking for the five breeding farms represented, said, "We're real happy to see all of you here tonight, especially with Easter tomorrow." When he said "Easter," the lights in the sale barn flicked off and Bressner said, "God be with us." The lights came right back on.

Ray Hanks, who has a Ph.D. in meat science from Illinois, brought 46 young pigs from the farm he, his brother-in-law and father-in-law operate in Livingston County. Those and 140 other hogs were auctioned off in a couple of hours, the top one bringing $410, the lesser items around $50, to buyers from as far away as Texas and Pennsylvania.

The joy was palpable. As a father entered a winning bid, the 12-year-old boy or girl at his side would puff with pride, and a gleeful look would engulf a callow young face. Older boys kidding on their own tried to look blase -- even cool, you might say -- as they played men's games.

Callow faces, maybe; inexperienced, no question. But dummies they aren't. As the sale moved on, with lesser quality pigs coming into the little ring carpeted with wood shavings, one lad of 15 confided to his mother, "Why, these are just common feeder pigs."

He was dead right. But then, today's common feeder pig is tomorrow's ham sandwich, and that's something to think about as time draws nigh to plant the feed grain and keep the cycle turning.