Just last week, 11-year-old Brayden Komarek was preparing for his first-ever swine show at the Monona County Fair. He was one of 46 exhibitors prepared to make their way into the showring.

“I’m kind of nervous but excited,” he said, a few days before the show.

Komarek, of the Onawa Bobcats 4-H Club, showed his first pig project at the Monona County Fair thanks to a special swine project that began as a way to encourage more participants in the county’s swine program.

When the number of swine exhibitors at the Monona County Fair dwindled to one lone exhibitor in 2010, those close to the fair knew something had to change to encourage more participants.

There were efforts underway with the Westwood FFA to give youth an opportunity to house pigs at a local farm while they learned how to take care of and show pigs. That helped boost pig numbers to 42 at the 2014 Monona County Fair.

Building back interest

In the summer of 2014, the Monona County Extension Council approved efforts to back the special swine project. That backing has helped expand the project and the visibility of the swine industry in the county, says Melissa Beermann, program co­­ordinator with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach in Monona County.

“It’s come a long way. It has blown me away how many kids want to show a pig,” she said.

Last week, there were 125 pigs and 46 exhibitors slated to make their way into the show ring at the Monona County Fair.

The special swine project works within the county’s 4-H budget, buying pigs for the 4-Hers to get started each year. The pigs are housed nearby at Brink Farms.

The 4-H participants take a hands-on approach in weighing, tagging, sorting and choring their pigs.

“It’s exciting because you see these kids mainly that have never been exposed to this,” Beermann said.

Like sisters Courtney and Sydney Davis, two of the program’s first participants. It started when their mom signed up the sisters for the program.

“I didn’t really want to do it at first,” Sydney, 17, admits. “I never really watched the pig show or was interested in it.”

Courtney, 15, felt the same way.

“At first I’m like, ‘I’m not doing that. How do you even show a pig?’” she said.

Throughout the year, program participants raise money to fund their project. Local businesses and supporters have donated money and supplies to the project, too.

The program is available to all 4-H members, including those who have worked with livestock, and those who haven’t.

Learning about livestock

Komarek, who was also showing a goat at the county fair last week, said he was interested in showing pigs because of the livestock on his grandpa’s farm.

“We got started getting a whole bunch of goats and chickens at Grandpa’s. I thought it would be fun to show pigs and goats,” he said.

Through the project, he at­tended workshops on production practices, biosecurity and showmanship. Through hands-on workshops and demonstrations, he learned all about choring and proper animal care and handling.

It was through the series of workshops and showmanship classes that Sydney and Courtney became more interested in raising and showing.

Since then, the family has purchased pigs on their own outside of the special swine project to raise on their farm near Blencoe. Sydney and Courtney were ready to show their pigs last week at the fair.

Expanding facilities

Not only has the program increased the number of participants in the swine show and forced the fair committee to add more pen spaces for the swine exhibitors, Beermann says, it’s also upped the confidence among 4-H members showing their projects.

“It shows kids that they can do it. They don’t have to live on a farm. They can still learn these things,” Beermann said.

As a project coordinator, she says it’s encouraging to see some of the more seasoned 4-Hers help the younger, less experienced members learn tricks to showmanship and livestock raising.

“It’s exciting watching the older kids step up and be leaders and teaching them to do it,” she said. “I just stand back and watch.”

Not only has their interest in the swine project grown, the 4-Hers said they’ve also talked their friends and other family members into showing pigs at the fair. “I’m telling other friends about the project,” Komarek said. “I’m telling them how fun it is and if they start they could have fun.”