Hogging all the attention

As the Jackson County Fair kicks off today, not everyone will be there simply to have a good time. Kailey and Tanner Cockell, among others, will be there to win.

The Cockells have raised two male pigs since March in preparation for this year's 4-H/Future Farmers of America Livestock show at the Jackson County Expo. The Ashland duo will join more than 200 young farmers from around the region, each hoping their pig is a prize-wining pig.

Kailey, 16, and Tanner, 14, along with their parents, Bob and Robyn, are members of Ashland Pigskins, a local 4-H club. On their farm east of town, the family raises horses, dogs, cats and, of course, pigs. Robyn said animals have played an important role in her children's lives and provided plenty of humorous moments along the way.

"There's nothing like sitting on your back patio in the evening and having a couple of 280-pound hogs walk by you," she said.

Those 280-pound hogs were 40-pound piglets when the Cockells bought them from a specialty pig farm in Shady Cove. Turning them into prize contenders was up to Kailey and Tanner, and each has been up to the challenge.

"It's been just us," Kailey said. "We've been feeding them and taking care of them."

That has meant taking them on walks twice a day, and occasionally enduring bites from them.

They said a pig can easily gain two or three pounds per day, and theirs have needed every pound they could get in order to be ready for the fair.

"It's a lot of hard work, but it's worth it," Kailey said.

The pigs will be judged by their showmanship and marketability. Criteria for showmanship include the animal's physical appearance, grooming and behavior. Marketability refers to the animal's potential value for ranchers, who will purchase many of them by the fair's end.

In the past, Tanner has earned as much as $2,400 for his pigs.

Swine flu concerns

The entire animal exhibit is a staple of the Jackson County Fair. But this year's event led to controversy among state health officials.

Responding to the spread of swine flu, the Oregon Department of Agriculture has requested humans and pigs be kept 6 feet apart at all fairs — not because humans could catch the disease from pigs, but because pigs might catch it from people. Despite the warnings, local fair staff members are not overly concerned.

"I haven't come across cases like that, where people have transmitted anything to a pig," Fair Manager Chris Borovansky said. He said organizers have always taken sufficient steps to make sure no one who visits the animal exhibits is put at risk, such as placing hand-washing stations throughout the venue.

"I'm comfortable with the precautions we have taken over the past 10 years," he said. We've been a pretty proactive leader in health issues."

Concerns about swine flu will not be foremost on Kailey's and Tanner's minds this week. Instead they say they will be doing all they can in the days before judging to bring home a blue ribbon.

"We're really looking forward to it," Kailey said. "We worked really hard."

Gates to the fair will open at 11 a.m. and close at 11 p.m. each day, today through Saturday. On Sunday, the gates will close at 6 p.m. Anyone who wants to make a special point of seeing the pigs should visit the fair no later than Wednesday evening, when they will be auctioned off.

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