Tucked away between housing developments rests a big red barn with a pasture out front, enclosed with a white fence. In total the property is 10 acres, considerably smaller than when it opened in the 1970s. There’s a greenhouse, several smaller barns, various types of livestock and a small parking area.
Despite the sweltering heat of early August, the farm bustled with adolescents tending animals. With less than a week to go until the Clackamas County Fair, students at the North Clackamas Land Lab were busy preparing their animals for showtime.
Gently tapping his stocky, pink body with a thin whip, 16-year-old Erika Bergstrom shepherded her pig, Louie, out of his pen in the hog barn. But Louie had other plans in mind: Standing with his feet firmly planted, Louie showed his stubborn attitude by refusing to budge.
Looking to her dad with frustration in her eyes, as if asking what to do next, Bergstrom braced her body against the pens on either side of her and shoved her weight into the hog’s rump until he walked out of the barn, veering right toward a small field.
It was exercise time for the Blue Butt cross-bred hog.
At only 8 months old, Louie weighs 242 pounds. For the past six months, Bergstrom raised him to compete in National FFA Organization market hog and showmanship competitions. After competing in the county fair, Bergstrom will continue on with her agriculture education and this little piggy, Louie, will go market.
“I’ll cry. You just get attached. You get attached quite a bit,” Bergstrom said.
For students like Bergstrom, who aspires to be an agricultural science teacher one day, programs like FFA and 4-H offer invaluable experiential learning opportunities.
Roughly 14 miles from downtown Portland, Oregon, the Land Lab is where Louie lives and Bergstrom learns. Owned by the North Clackamas School District, it offers students a hands-on curriculum in agricultural science. During the school year, participating students attend class every other day and in doing so, can earn up to 18 college credits with Linn-Benton Community College. In the summer, students work with their animals on their own time, often competing in shows.
Lessons include everything from handling various livestock, meat judging, genetics, nutrition, business concepts, rudimentary veterinary science and more.
It’s Bergstrom’s third year at the Land Lab and second year competing at the fair and she was feeling hopeful heading into this year's competition. “I’m pretty excited to see how we’re going to do,” she said.
Her goal: win a coveted purple ribbon and walk in the Parade of Champions.
“We’re super excited that kids participate, but some of us are strong believers that not everyone wins in life,” said Kathy Mayfield, an agriculture teacher of 30 years, including 19 at the Land Lab. “In the livestock world, there are winners and there are people who don’t [win]. We don’t want to call them losers.”
Although winning comes with some prestige and bragging rights, among other things, arguably it’s what the students learn while raising and showing animals that is the lifetime reward.
Away from the chaos of the city, away from the urban crowds and electric scooters, it’s like another world for these kids.
In the field, Bergstrom, who will be a junior at Clackamas High School this year, navigated Louie in various directions. She was practicing for the showmanship competition, where she was to be judged for how well she could maneuver the hog. Louie seemed to be fairly responsive to her lead. This exercise is necessary to maintain Louie’s muscular frame for the market hog competition, where he was judged on his muscle, volume and structural correctness as a meat animal.
Louie and Bergstrom must work together as a team, but Louie is willful. Ignoring her command, he trotted over to a shady spot under a tree to gnaw on a stick.
“He’s like a dog,” Bergstrom said. As she caught up to him, Louie nudged his face against her for attention. His personality is about as robust as his body.
Preparing an animal for the county fair is a lot of responsibility and effort. Along with regular exercise and handling, Louie must stay healthy and clean.
“Sometimes I’ll take him out and he’ll be covered in poop and I’ll run my hand over him and be, like, uck!” Bergstrom said.
On this day Louie wasn’t too bad, but he needed a haircut before the fair, so they headed to the wash station.
Louie entered a wash stall with a cacophony of squeals, snorts and screams. Pig squeals can reach 130 decibels, as cited in a study published through Iowa State University. For comparison, a chainsaw can reach 115 decibels and jet plane 140 decibels.
Bergstrom lathered the hog in soap, gently massaging away the dirt, and then rubbed him down with an oil body conditioner to make him smooth and shiny. It’s similar to how bodybuilding competitors oil up to catch the light and draw attention to the body structure.
A buzzing hum filled the space as she glided the electric clipper across his body. Louie did his best to evade her, but the tight stall space stymied his efforts. He soon became distracted by an apple core just outside the gate, pressing his snout between the bars to retrieve it.
The whole process looked far from easy, but for Bergstrom, it’s all in a day’s work.
Showtime At The County Fair
A hazy morning greeted the day, before the heat set in at the first day of the Clackamas County Fair in Canby, Oregon. Long before the crowds arrive, the rides start spinning and the corn dogs start cooking, the grounds are bustling with the energy of 4-H and FFA participants getting animals competition-ready. It's a symphony of mooing and squealing, squawking and bleating.
At a livestock wash station, several cows got a morning bath. Nearby, a calf lay in a bed of straw, chewing on food. Someone used a vacuum hose — much like what you'd find at a car wash — to dry a cow. Mooing filled the morning air.
Bergstrom was in the next tent over, where pigs were penned adjacent to rows of llamas. Thirty hogs were vying in this market competition and, similar to wrestling, the classes are arranged by weight.
No. 667. Louie, weighing in at 272 pounds, would compete in Class 3 for Light Heavyweight Market Pig.
Bergstrom's mom, Ceanna Bergstrom, straightened Erika's collar just as her class was called to compete.
"Part of it is putting your best foot forward. Not just the animal but also yourself," Ceanna said. "If you show up looking like you just rolled out of bed, that's not going to make a good impression on the judges."
Bergstrom ducked under a barrier and led Louie into the ring.
To the untrained eye, it's an odd scene: a bunch of adolescents tapping pigs with tassel-tipped whips while milling around a sawdust-covered ring, making eye contact with the judge every so often.
One by one pig-caretaker pairs were called upon to leave the ring until only two remained — Bergstrom and another competitor. The judge, Shannon Schulz, a show pig farmer from Tonopah, Arizona, watched the pairs move around the ring.
Bergstrom has developed a strategy involving showmanship.
“I try to go the opposite direction of everyone else to stand out a little,” Bergstrom said. “When I go into the ring, I’ll go straight. Then I’ll curve so he [the judge] can see the front view … then the side view, then rear view.”
In the market hog competition, judges look for structural correctness including a long body, muscular volume and sturdy frame. Although many people associate pigs with plumpness, the ideal meat hog is muscular, not fat.
To an average onlooker, the animals can appear pretty much the same. But as Bergstrom’s father Cliff said, “You spend enough time around these animals and you start getting able to pick out the differences.”
Raising his arm to the sky, Schulz signaled that he’d decided the round’s winner.
He motioned to Bergstrom and Louie, earning them a purple ribbon and a spot in the Championship Drive, where winners in all the weight classes would compete for Grand Champion and Reserve Champion.
“We’re on the road to victory!” Bergstrom said cheerfully. “I’m very happy we made it to the final drive today.”
The pair headed back to Louie’s pen to break before the Championship Drive as her dad pinned her purple ribbon to the stall.
If the pair won Grand Champion, Bergstrom would get a decorative belt buckle and Louie would go first in the auction.
Higher-placing animals go earlier in the auction when the best bids are made. Bergstrom hoped Louie would earn a spot within the first 15 in the auction line. Last year, she put her auction money toward attending a leadership conference in Washington, D.C., and buying Louie.
“Alright, purples!” yelled an announcer in an effort to get the class winners to the ring for the Championship Drive.
“Dad, can you hand me my sprayer?” Bergstrom asked, wanting to give Louie a little extra shine before entering the ring.
This round lasted longer than the first but soon enough the judge comes to a decision.
“There’s that power hog,” Schulz said gesturing toward Louie. “A very sound, square and true hog. Young lady presents him well.”
The pair placed third overall.
“Third. Not bad,” said Mayfield, the agriculture teacher, to Cliff Bergstrom.
“Can’t complain about that,” he replied.
Louie’s reward for the day included marshmallows and Dutch Bros coffee. But the pair had a long week ahead with early mornings and late nights. In addition to showing Louie in the next day’s showmanship competition, Bergstrom was also showing a lamb in the ewe competition.
“I’m proud,” Bergstrom admitted just before yelling “Mckenna!” and reaching for a congratulatory hug with the Grand Champion winner. “She was spoon-feeding her pig last night to make weight,” she said of her friend.
"Good job!" she shouted to another competitor walking past. Her sportsmanship is evident in the accolades she gives to her peers.
What is learned in livestock management is a lesson in life, love and responsibility. It's clear to see the love and care these animals receive, and yet after the competition, they go to auction where they will be slaughtered and end up on diners' plates. Nearby a thirsty hog guzzled water from a plastic bottle held by a caretaker.
Earning third place overall in both market hog and showmanship competitions, and sixth in line at auction, Bergstrom's dedication in tending to Louie for the past six months was evident.
Although it's hard to say goodbye, it's part of the teenager's agricultural science education.
At auction, he sold for $1,600. Roughly $500 will go toward next year's animal and feed and the remainder will go toward FFA events like the national convention. The Grand Champion hog sold for just over $4,200.
That'll do, pig. That'll do.
Jo Mancuso contributed reporting.