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Sonoma County Fair is back, and so are the proud pigs

Some of the pigs being shown at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds on Saturday weren’t entirely thrilled to be there on the third day of youth livestock pageantry at this year’s county fair. One agitated porker spent virtually an entire round of the hog showmanship competition trying to push past its handler and back to the barn stalls, despite a girl’s heroic attempts to keep the animal focused on their rehearsed plan.

For the kids, taking part in an auction at the fairgrounds after last year’s fair was canceled was a different matter.

“I missed it a lot,” said Alli Michelucci, a 14-year-old who lives on a couple acres outside Petaluma and was standing beside her dozing pig Louie in the barn area. “I’ve made many friends in agriculture. I love seeing my friends here.”

Like so many other activities, that interaction was stolen from Michelucci — and her twin sister, Cassi, who was showing pigs Saturday, as well — by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. The coronavirus has not left us, but the fair is back, and so are the livestock shows and auctions.

Saturday’s lineup included lamb, goat, poultry and rabbit auctions, and the crowd-pleasing market hog showmanship event, which tests the skills of the young farmers more than the market value of the pigs.

As judge John Mendes offered sometimes frank suggestions to the participants, various age groups took to the pen to lead their animals around a semi-organized path with rapid, gentle taps of wooden sticks. The young handlers were encouraged to lock eyes on the judge as they passed him. Some of their partners were more receptive than others.

Most of the people at the show were thrilled to be back on the property. That included Mendes, who teaches animal sciences at Modesto Junior College. He normally works between 15 and 20 shows during the summer. Last year there were none, at least not in person.

“It wasn’t the same,” Mendes said.

It certainly wasn’t. The competitions and auctions went virtual in 2020. Organizers sent sample videos to the kids, who then had to shoot their own movies that properly featured their woolly or feathered projects, Alli Michelucci said. Judges would provide comments afterward. But that wasn’t the same as the real-time guidance of Mendes, who coached the entries on things like hand gestures and positioning of the animals.

The local youth weren’t entirely isolated last summer. They hung out with friends in the area. But these livestock auctions draw 4-H and Future Farmers of America teams from all over the region. At the Sonoma County Fair, they came from Annadel, Lytton Springs, Point Reyes, Two Rock and Sonoma Valley, among many other sites.

It’s a way for the kids to expand their social circles, and that’s what disappeared in 2020.

“It was frustrating,” said Tristan Wilkes, 16, of Sebastopol. “At the same time, it was kind of relieving. For me, the fair is a stress.”

Michelucci understands that feeling. “I get nervous right away when I come in the morning,” she said. “I start thinking about who I’m going to compete against. And you’re just hoping the pigs will do what you ask during the show.”

But any anxiety is outweighed by the excitement of competition, and the satisfaction she gets from raising and showing these animals. Michelucci has been doing this for six years. Louie was from a litter of seven piglets. All seven of those pigs are being displayed at the fair this weekend, some by other exhibitors.

Michelucci said she has learned a lot of life skills from animal husbandry.

“Responsibility being a big one,” she said. “It takes a lot of time to raise animals. And these are living things, not just like a craft you make.”

Hog and beef auctions will follow Sunday at the fairgrounds. Mendes, for one, is impressed it’s happening.

“A lot of fairs were canceled this summer,” he said. “Sonoma found a way to pull this off.”

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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