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The Ties that Bind

Show ring competition offers common ground for young and old

Show ring competition offers common ground for young and old.

“Maybe the greatest challenge now is to find a way to keep independence while also committing ourselves to the ties that bind people, families, and ultimately societies together.”

These are the words of Jane O'Reilly, U.S. feminist, humorist and syndicated newspaper columnist. Although she may have written the “ties that bind” phrase in a different context, most are familiar with it. It fits with the story I am about to tell you about a good friend, his family and a series of events that took place during “The Great Minnesota Get Together.” That's what we call the state fair up in these parts.

Say what you will about the merits and shortcomings of show ring competition, this year's state fair contest provided a stage for a unique — if not rare — story to unfold.

It began as one of those neat little happenings during the 4-H swine show on the first Friday of the fair, when youth from around the state vie for top barrow and gilt honors. I noticed my good friend Gene Pichner in the stands keeping a close eye on a certain Hampshire-Yorkshire crossbred barrow.

The barrow won its class, then went on to be named champion in the crossbred division and reserve grand champion overall. Gene was thrilled.

A short time later, Gene waived me over and said: “I have to tell you the story about that barrow.”

It turns out that this newly named champion entered the world on a very cold, winter day with a bit of bad luck. His mother developed some complications while farrowing and was unable to nurse him. His prospects looked pretty bleak, so his caretaker gathered the little fellow up, slipped him into his coat pocket and headed down the road for Gene's home farm, where his granddaughter, Amy, now lives.

“Do you have a sow farrowing?” he asked. She did. Now with its foster mother, the little roan-butted barrow's destiny was set in motion.

It's the sort of heart-warming story that reinforces a farm family's deep-rooted commitment to one another and to their animals. Youngsters learn at an early age that the animals in their care must be given every opportunity to survive and thrive. Even in adversity, their young owners commit to their well being, put forth their very best efforts and gain valuable life lessons in the form of animal husbandry skills, the joys and challenges of competition, how to win, how to lose, and the value of a family working together.

The Rest of the Story

It's a nice story — but there's more. A few days later, three generations of the Pichner family were back at the state fair swine barn competing in the production carcass barrow contest. Doug Pichner, Gene's son, saw this as an opportunity for his Dad to return to the show ring after several years' hiatus.

A little reluctant, Gene agreed to show one of several entries. It was a big class of crossbred barrows — 20 or so. As anyone who has shown pigs knows, when they first see the wide open spaces of the show ring, they often launch into an exploration of the new space and their new penmates — and they do it with a certain amount of gusto.

At 76, Gene has made hundreds and hundreds of laps around show rings over the years. But as the judging wore on, Gene began to wear down.

In the stands behind me, the Pichner family — wife, son, daughter-in-law and granddaughters — were keeping a watchful eye on their patriarch showman.

Is Gene OK? Should someone take over showing the barrow?

They knew the right time to pitch in. Granddaughter Sara, a former state fair champion showperson in her own right, hopped the fence and took the show stick from her grateful grandfather — a symbolic passing of the baton, swine industry style.

This display of family support plays out time and time again throughout the summer. Encouragement offered to young and old alike. Challenges and victories are shared. They take care of each other.

Did They Win?

They landed at the top end of the class. But the real winners were those in the ring and at ringside who witnessed this display of three-generations of family commitment on a late-August day at “The Great Minnesota Get Together.”

It was a privilege to witness this family's support for each other. The next time someone expresses reservations about the value of the show ring, tell them this story, and add: “the ties that bind people, families, and ultimately societies together” can be found at a hog show near you, if you just look for them.