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Beltrami County Fair to feature 'city' pigs

When the trailers unload animals at the Beltrami County Fairgrounds this week, two of the four-legged 4-H projects will be city-raised swine.

The Vonasek brothers Seth, 14, and Reid, 11, have shown rabbits and chickens at the Beltrami County Fair in past years. But this year they wanted to move on to bigger livestock, namely pigs. The problem, however, is the Vonasek boys live with their parents, Todd and Carla Vonasek, within Bemidji city limits. And city ordinances prohibit backyard hogs.

As a result, Seth and Reid's project became a de facto civics lesson.

"First, we had to go to City Hall and fill out a request," said Seth.

"We went and talked to the neighbors, and got permission from them," said Reid.

"We had to go to the City Council and talk to the mayor," said Seth. "Also, me and my brother had to make a thing on the computer on a backup plan."

"The neighbors were concerned about a backup plan if they stunk too much," said Carla.

With the four nearest neighbors signing off on the plan, Seth and Reid then drew up a pig contract with their parents.

"Our parents didn't know if we could take care of pigs, so we had a pledge," Reid said.

The backup plan included agreeing to return the pigs to the breeder, Norm Evans, if neighbors noticed swine odor. And in the care contract, the boys promised to feed and cleanup after the pigs morning and night.

"Just like a farm family, they have to do chores before they go to school," said Carla.

She said they picked up the 40-pound weanlings from the Evans farm after a big family dinner on Easter. Reid named his barrow Polo and Seth named his gilt Sally. The boys explained that the pigs were a Duroc-Yorkshire-Poland-China cross, pointing out the pigs' Duroc red front and back parts, the Yorkshire white belts around their shoulders and the black Poland-China spots.

Seth and Reid have been cane-training their pigs to walk sedately around the show ring. They also took in the Hubbard County Fair earlier this month to garner tips by watching other 4-Hers show pigs.

The Sally and Polo pair is a major education for the family, who has roots in residential Bemidji, not on farms.

"(Todd) grew up on Calihan and I grew up on Lakewood Drive," said Carla. They have now lived for 17 years close to the edge of the city on Brinkman Drive Northeast.

Greg Claypool, who raises swine and manages the Beltrami County Fair Swine Barn, also gave them a short course in pig care. He explained that a good gilt (female) is equipped with 12-14 teats to feed her future litters. He notched Sally and Polo's ears for identification, vaccinated and tagged them.

The boys also learned that pigs' tails speak clearly of their condition.

"If they're sick or something, their tails will be down, but if he's feeling fine, it's curled up," said Reid, demonstrating with Polo's tail positions.

Carla said other 4-H families donated equipment, such as an automatic waterer, for Seth and Reid's venture into the hog business. "The sharing that goes on in 4-H is awesome," she said.

The boys will also be showing chickens in the 4-H classes. Reid said he showed a pair of Rhode Island Red Bantam chickens last year. They weren't good enough quality to win, so the family gave them away. He said he felt bad about that, but then Mike Moore of Red Lake Falls, handed him the hen and rooster grand champions. Reid said Moore told him that someone who cares so much about chickens should have some quality stock and gave Reid the pair as a present. Later, the family bought more chickens from Moore.

Seth and Reid also participate in wildlife classes and shooting sports. They are members of the Frohn Willing Workers 4-H Club. Although they don't live in Frohn Township, it's the nearest club and they had to pick one to join. One of the club's projects is to adopt the Ours to Serve House of Hospitality homeless shelter. The club members collect supplies and help at the shelter.

Carla said the boys know eggs don't come out of cartons, and they know bacon comes from pigs. But it will be hard to sit down to a meal of Sally or Polo. She suggested they might trade their pigs for less personal swine raised by another family.

The boys said they would like to go into farming, but they have other aspirations, as well. Seth said he wants to be a civil engineer like his father, and Reid wants to be a veterinarian.

Meanwhile, they are enjoying their hog projects and are grateful to the neighbors and city officials for allowing them the opportunity.

"We're going to be putting up a poster (at the fair) saying 'The City Pigs' with a tribute to the neighbors and the City Council for letting us have them," said Carla.