Last year, 4-H’er Jack Joseph’s fair pig was a bit of an anomaly. His pig, which wound up yielding a strong price at the fair, was completely organically fed.
This meant that in categories such as showmanship — categories looking for a fattened-up pig, he didn’t really stand a chance. Organically fed pigs just don’t put the weight and shine on like their non-organically fed competitors.
This year’s fair will have four competitors entering organically fed pigs — all from Indian Valley — including Jack, along with his brother Owen Joseph, Aubrey Schramel and Jocelyn Mckinney.
These four entries join a growing movement of 4-H’ers across the country exploring the possibilities of organically raised livestock — a movement that, while not yet popular in Plumas and Sierra counties, is taking hold across California, especially in coastal counties.
Kiera Butler’s 2014 book, “What 4-H Teaches Seven Million Kids and How Its Lessons Could Change Food and Farming Forever” explores much of the growing trend, mostly in California, to move to organic feed for 4-H livestock as well as other livestock needs.
Butler’s book explores some history of the organization and the partnership of public sector funds and private sector donations. For example, the University of California is the land-grant university system the state 4-H is run through, while donations often come from corporate agricultural businesses such as DuPont and Monsanto.
Butler raises an eyebrow to the cooperation of such entities and whether that relationship is in the best interest of kids and farming. These days, even the single word Monsanto conjures up images of genetically modified organisms and the controversy behind them in some people.
As recently as July 2017, Modern Farmer website ran the article “Indoctrination Nation” by Sarah McColl extolling the history of the 4-H organization always being tied to industrial agricultural organizations. One former 4-H alumna, Amrys Williams, is quoted in that piece: “Kids aren’t thinking about food systems stuff, the USDA or DuPont. They’re thinking about ‘How do I win a blue ribbon at the fair?’”
The concept of organic farming of 4-H livestock is still new. Doing a search online will yield thousands of entries on how to fatten up a pig for show, but not so much on using organic feed.
The hogs that Jack and Owen Joseph are raising are red wattle hogs — whose history seems a perfect fit for the project. While there are various origin stories for how the breed got to the United States, it’s considered an American breed. In the 1700s, these pigs adapted well to the Americas and were popular but fell out of favor for being too lean. Americans at the time wanted fatter pigs to use for lard and soap.
According to Slow Food USA, the red wattle hog is on the ALBC Conservation Priority List and as of 2017 has less than 200 registered in the country.
As with other age-old American traditional organizations, change is coming with the times. Chapters of Future Farmers of America, and the Grange system have also begun the march toward organic produce and livestock. That doesn’t change a mother’s worry however.
“My kids are raising meat that we’d want to put on the table. This is the meat I want to be feeding my family,” said Karisa Joseph, Jack and Owen’s mother.
Karisa Joseph also lamented that the judging criteria for assessing livestock and 4-H’ers has not caught up with the organics yet. “They’ll never win,” she said.
Jack Joseph isn’t too concerned with earning ribbons on this particular morning in Indian Valley. He’s just happy to raise his pig in a new way — which happens to be the oldest way.