THE SHOW RING
This was a good year for the folks at South Forty Suffolks sheep ranch. Every hoof was polished, every ear cleaned and every ewe beautifully trimmed for the Wisconsin State Fair here, and it paid off.
Tod Weaver, the 21-year-old shepherd who polishes, cleans and trims the sheep before showing them, won seven blue ribbons, in such classes as ram lamb, ewe lamb and get-of-sire, as well as the coveted premier breeder award.
It was time to bring out the champagne. Instead, he returned the sheep to their pens, brushed some manure from a trimming stand and sat down to talk about the world of prize sheep and state fairs, the season for which is beginning across the Midwest.
For two years he had trimmed hooves and delivered lambs at the Suffolk sheep ranch in Berlin Heights, Ohio, dreaming of this triumph and the profits that will flow from it.
While the farm economy is said to be in the worst shape since the Great Depression, breeders of prize animals continue to find buyers who will pay astronomical prices.
"The good sheep are selling good," he said, stroking his beard, "but the middle-of-the-road or bottom sheep, that's where the prices drop."
Showing sheep is a business, he said, a way of proving that your sheep are the best.
Dean Wikel, the owner of South Forth Suffolks and Weaver's employer, can sell an average lamb for $500 for breeding stock. That compares with perhaps $80 for a lamb sold for meat.
And an outstanding sheep can run into the thousands of dollars. Earlier this year a Suffolk ram sold at the auction in Sedalia, Mo., for $30,000, Weaver said. That is mutton at $150 a pound.
With prices like that, a good sheep owner can sail through a recession almost without feeling it, and so Weaver will continue taking seven sheep around a small circuit of state and county fairs, hoping for more recognition as an outstanding breeder.
It's hard work, and not just at fair time. Weaver lives in a loft in the barn, above 358 sheep. During lambing season he gets up every two hours to check for lambs. The smell doesn't get too bad, he said without smiling.
The nemesis of sheep exhibitors at state fairs is city slickers who reach into the pens and plant their hands firmly in the wool. Sometimes that ruins a trimming job and tempts a shepherd to shear the perpetrator.
"You can't really blame the people from the city," Weaver said. "They want to touch and feel the sheep. You get pretty disgusted, but you got to understand. They're from the city."
The Wisconsin State Fair offers a kaleidoscopic life of sheepish grins, life high on the hog, udder failures -- and even worse puns. "I checked out the chicks at the fair," read one little boy's T-shirt, ornamented with pictures of the kind of chicks that end up in noodle soup.
And one burly farmer wore a green cap reading, "Next to sex, John Deere is Best."
Oblivious of the puns was Gem, a 6-foot-long, 810-pound hog who won the "big boar" contest. As wide-eyed children gaped at the mountain of bacon, Gem slept unself-consciously.
His feet twitched rapidly, and his mammoth head rocked as he lay on the ground, dreaming. Farmers try to breed larger and larger pigs (and sheep and cattle) -- until the animals have difficulty supporting themselves on sound legs.
The 18-month-old Gem could command a price of thousands of dollars, said his proud owner, Dean K. George Jr., of Evansville, Wis.
Beating out 1,007 other big pigs at the fair is an enviable achievement. It shows that dieting does not always pay -- and that prize animals can bring home the bacon even in a recession.