In a comfy corner of the Swine Pavilion at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds, 14-year-old Mackenzie “Cookie” McGaha (sounds like ma-GAK-ee) feeds her Yorkshire pig a marshmallow. Named for his favorite sweet treat, the 6-month-old pink pig waits in a tidy pen. It almost looks as though he’s smiling. Soon it will be time for the pair to compete in a nearby arena.
Cookie and her two older brothers take care of their animals at the show grounds when they compete and also on their family’s farm in Beallsville, Maryland. Care involves a lot of early mornings feeding slop, bathing animals and mucking manure. It’s messy, and it’s hard work.
“But I really enjoy being with the animals,” says Cookie, whose parents grew up raising farm animals. “It’s a big responsibility caring for these pigs every day,” says the girl, who stays in a camper at the fairgrounds with her family during the fair.
In another barn nearby, 11-year-old Jackson Rippeon demonstrates how to blow-dry a steer (young male cattle that can no longer reproduce) after a bath, to get ready for a show. Old Yeller — a buff-colored bovine who weighs 1,310 pounds — stands quietly for his beauty treatment.
Jackson pays extra attention to his steers’ hair before a show.
“It’s a lot of work to keep them washed, dried and clipped and getting them fit,” he says. In steer competitions, the word “fit” refers to keeping a steer’s hair fluffed. Like his dad, Jackson has raised and shown steers since he was a young boy. They live on a farm in Mount Airy.
The fact that his steers will soon be sold for meat doesn’t stop Jackson from doting on his animals. His bond with the steers started when he got them as calves, or babies.
“I would sit in their stall with them and rub them,” he says. “I see them every day. They understand that I’m going to take care of them and give them lots of good food and care. They have a good life.”
Back in the Swine Pavilion, Cookie’s pig snacks on a few more marshmallows before the pair head into the arena with other competitors. The judge compares how the pigs walk, the perkiness of their ears, and the width of their shoulders and hindquarters. Then he awards Cookie and Marshmallow a blue ribbon and $25 for first place. Two days later, Marshmallow is named the day’s champion Yorkshire.
Cookie will compete at the Maryland State Fair this week. Jackson and his family will be there, too. This year, he has competed in six or seven shows, including two in Indiana. But he’s especially looking forward to the state fair.
“I love their show ring,” he says, “with all the flags and the banners.”
Jackson also likes how they use deep, super-soft shavings in the steers’ stalls to make the animals comfortable. Two things he doesn’t care for? Junk food and carnival rides.
“No,” he says, “I don’t go for that stuff. I’m usually at the barn.”
What: Maryland State Fair (lots of fun agriculture-related events — such as cow-milking lessons, competitions and exhibits, plus carnival rides).
When: August 24 to September 4.
Where: Maryland State Fairgrounds, 2200 York Road, Timonium. (Cookie and Jackson will be exhibiting in a building called the Cow Palace.)
For more information: Visit marylandstatefair.com.
What: State Fair of Virginia
When: September 29 to October 8.
Where: Meadow Event Park, 13191 Dawn Boulevard, Doswell.
For more information: Visit statefairva.org.