High on the Hogs

If he happens to muck out a victory at the fair in Timonium, that's nice. Renn Roscher likes herding the animals. But mostly it makes a blue-ribbon excuse to be with friends.

July 08, 1999|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

Renn Roscher scales the fence and climbs into the first pen. "Over here," he commands the pigs as he tries to sweep out the muck. The pigs ignore him. They crowd around, chewing on his boot-covered toes, leaving him no choice but to poke his broom into their hides and push them away. Two boys, one to herd and one to sweep, usually work with the biggest, most aggressive pigs, but tonight he's alone.

His slight frame pressed hither and yon by a ton of swaying, squealing pork, Renn remains calm. The pen isn't the cleanest when he's done, but it's a good job and he'll leave it at that.

Renn, 11, of Wards Chapel in Baltimore County, likes herding pigs. He thinks it's fun. That is one reason he decided to raise a hog this summer. Another is that his "best friends outside of school" are doing it, and Renn, a sixth-grader, figured it would be a good way to get in more time with them.

Once a week since May, Renn and his pals, Michael Meadows and Bryan Jones, have mucked out the three pens on George and Bud Strohmer's farm in Granite where Baltimore County 4-H members raise their pigs. The three friends will show their animals today at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium. Come Saturday, the pigs -- Larry, Curly, and Moe -- go to market.

It was Renn's idea to name the pigs for the Three Stooges. His is Curly, since her tail curls around twice, and when they met, she weighed almost as much as Renn.

Renn is 89 pounds and 4-feet-11, if he remembers correctly from a recent checkup. He has a crew cut, blue eyes, white teeth, dimples and perfect skin. Inside is part tender, part tough, a man in formation.

Like the kids in the new subdivisions sprouting around him, Renn watches TV, plays computer games and goes to movies.

Confidently and earnestly he reaches out to try his hand at other things, too. He's got baseball trophies from the Wards Chapel recreation league on his dresser, karate belts displayed in a case on the wall. Lego sculptures take up a big chunk of the floor and shelves; among the books next to his bed is "Fishing for Dummies," a gift from his father. Every time they go fishing, they return empty-handed.

He got involved in 4-H the way most do -- because his sisters did it, his friends did it and his mom did it. About 5,500 kids are raising animals in Maryland this summer, and 4-H has become so popular among suburban kids who lease space from farmers that some clubs are turning them away.

A blue ribbon event

Last year at the 4-H fair, Renn took a blue ribbon for bicycle safety. He identified and explained dozens of bicycle parts laid out for him on a table and demonstrated his riding skills; he prepared by taking classes from a senior 4-H member.

Positioning a pig for a blue ribbon is different; for Renn, it's a lot like positioning oneself for life: careful choices, hard work, lots of shoveling manure and no guarantee of success.

There's no instant gratification, either, though Renn has noticed his pig gets bigger each week. Affection? Well, pigs are not like cows that stare at you with big brown eyes. Pigs are aloof. The only sign that Renn's pig recognizes him is the nip she takes out of his boot.

What does Renn expect from this? Fun and friendship; he doesn't much care about money.

The first summer in the swine program is the hardest. Renn won't make a profit, he figures, not after he subtracts the supplies he needs to show the animal at the fair: a broom to keep the pen clean, bins for water, a uniform -- khaki pants, black tie -- knee-high rubber boots and a pig brush he'll carry in a back pocket. And, oh, the hog whip. He'll need that for showmanship. But if he keeps everything in good shape, he won't have to buy it again next year.

A certain odor

The downside is the smell. Renn washes off his boots at the farm. His work clothes -- old royal-blue sweat pants and white T-shirt -- go into a dark plastic garbage bag that he ties shut before he drops it in the car trunk and then, at home, drops in the mudroom next to the washing machine. The work clothes are washed separately. Even with these precautions, his father will sit down to relax after dinner and suddenly get a whiff.

Renn says it's not as bad as he expected, given the advance billing.

His image of a pig has changed, too.

"It has hair, for one thing, very stiff hair that bristles. And pigs are loud. You can tell when they are scared or angry. They bite in play. But they chew when they are angry or scared. ... And another thing, pigs are faster than you think. Babies are skittish. Even big ones don't like to be tagged or weighed."

The first step in showing a pig is selecting one to raise.

"Choose a long one with a fat ham [the hip-like side next to the butt]," his friends advised. Not too big, not too small.

The big ones can get you a lot of money, Renn heard, but they can grow too big for the fair. Smaller pigs are easier to handle, but they may not gain weight fast enough to be shown.

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