September 08, 1986 12:00 PM

The air is chilly at 5:30 in the morning in Berrien County, Mich., even if it is August. The grass on the Dargus farm is still beaded with dew, and 11-year-old Brian Dargus is still sleepy. Most farm children are in bed at this hour, but Brian sits huddled in his family’s orange International Harvester truck for the drive to the Berrien County Youth Fair. It is a trip in pursuit of retribution for Brian’s showing last year. In the back of the truck are eight young pigs. Six of them belong to Brian’s sisters, Julie, 16, Susan, 14, and Emily, 7. Blubber and Daffodil are Brian’s, and every day for the last six months he has fed them, fussed over them, lectured and cajoled them, trying to prepare them—as much as any boy can prepare any pig—for this appearance. Along the way he has absorbed a little more of the pioneer code that his parents, Tim and Coreen, instill in their children: Work the land, pay your own way, stand on your own feet. All summer, besides tending his pigs, Brian has worked four to six hours a day at $1.75 an hour, and he has earned his pay. “He may be with me 10 hours,” says Tim, “but I don’t pay out for smokin’ and jokin’ time.” All told, Brian has banked a couple of thousand dollars, which he will need if he plans to go to college. “I don’t feel any obligation to send them to college,” says Tim. “All I have to do is give them the freedom of choice.”

The Dargus’ code is dictated by the realities of farming. Last winter they were getting only $40 per hundred pounds for their pigs. “It was a belly-smacker, a time you can hardly hold it together,” says Tim. “There were no secrets about that. The market affects the kids just like it affects Coreen and me. They get the highs and lows too.”

Showing pigs at the fair is part of Brian’s training for farming. So far he has a mixed record. Three years ago, in his best try, he took third place in the showmanship class. Last year, he won a blue ribbon in the market competition, where pigs are judged on their appearance and almost every entrant gets a ribbon of some kind. But he finished far down in the harder showmanship division, in which the competitors guide their pigs around a ring and answer questions posed by a judge on the animals’ conditioning.

Brian’s 1986 campaign began a year ago when the Dargus children pooled $350 to buy a Yorkshire pig, which they named Gertrude. She was impregnated by a heavily muscled Duroc boar, waited out her 114-day pregnancy in a barn with other expectant pigs and ballooned to 350 pounds. The children fed her twice a day (7 a.m. and 6 p.m.), and on the morning of Feb. 10, a cold and snowy day, Tim Dargus went to the farrowing barn and found nine piglets—six males and three females—blindly groping for suckling space.

The newborns weighed in at 2½ pounds each, except for a 1-lb. runt. Within hours Julie was on the scene with pliers, cutting down the piglets’ teeth to save the new mother from pain. “I make sure they’re on the nipple,” Brian said, of his job at the time. “I enjoy watching them fight with each other or walk around on Gertrude’s stomach.” By Valentine’s Day the piglets had their tails clipped as a health measure—pigs love to chew on one another’s tails—and were thriving, although Tim was concerned about the runt. “Sometimes, if a piglet isn’t getting on,” he said, “I’ll pop it on the concrete, put the body in a bucket and stick it in a hole in the ground.” Brian, listening, just blinked.

“Once in a while,” Tim said later, “the kids will come to love a pig that is charming, but basically they keep their distance. They realize that everything is terminal here—even us.”

By the end of May the eight pigs (the runt had been spared but kicked off the team) were weighing in at an average of 120 pounds each and eating five or six pounds of ground corn, soybean meal and vitamins a day. Early in June, the children made their picks for the fair according to seniority. Brian named one of his Daffodil and the other Blubber. “It sounds like a weird name,” he admitted, “but he’s always eating or just lying around.”

By now Brian was into the spirit of things: He’d begun to give his pigs pep talks. “If they don’t listen to me, for instance,” he said, “I yell at them about that. Daffodil, whenever I do something with the others, he just lies down on his side. I say to him, ‘You’re a jealous brat.’ ” Brian was also practicing moving pigs around with a switch; his pigs always seem to wind up in a corner of the show ring instead of strutting their stuff before the judge.

Finally, on Sunday night, Aug. 10, the children went to the barn for an extra-vigorous 2½-hour washing of the pigs, and the next morning they were all barreling along the Shawnee Road heading for the show. At the fairgrounds Coreen was nervous, but Brian appeared phlegmatic as he dusted Blubber and Daffodil with baby powder. In the market competition, Daffodil came in ninth out of 15 entries and was cited by the judge for lacking muscle and body width. Half an hour later Blubber came in sixth and snagged Brian another blue ribbon. The next day it was time for the dreaded showmanship trials. Entering the arena, Blubber galloped around a little, looking good; once he urinated directly in front of the judge, but judges expect that, and then Blubber headed for the corners.

Once again, Brian Dargus finished out of the top five, missing a ribbon. Asked if he was disappointed, he turned away and began to cry softly.

“Brian’s problem wasn’t his intensity,” said his father. “His trouble was that a pig’s an animal, and too often it’s going to do what it’s going to do.”

The next day, Brian got some consolation. It was auction day, and Daffodil sold for $1.40 a pound while Blubber went for $1.60, bringing Brian $660 for his college education, or just maybe a motorized minibike. Blubber was bought by a local winery, which planned to fatten him up some more and make him the main attraction at a harvest festival. The event is planned for next week, shortly before Brian Dargus and his family will start getting ready for 1987.

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