TRAVERSE CITY — Kingsley High School students Allyson Clark, Savannah Blair and Justin Wheelock started their days with Albert, Helen and Mr. Pig at 7:30 a.m.
The teenagers’ companions were swine — as Mr. Pig’s name suggests — destined for Thursday’s Northwestern Michigan Fair 4-H Livestock Auction. The early start to the day meant Clark, Blair and Wheelock had a lot of time to kill before their turns in the auction ring.
“We talk, play cards, sometimes we just lay down with our pigs and pet them,” Blair said before reaching down to feed 250-lb. Helen a chunk of muffin.
The three teenagers agreed they bonded with their swine while raising them, and Clark acknowledged the inevitable good-byes when the swine head to slaughter can be difficult.
“I cried last year,” she said.
Still, the three students said they love the livestock auction, arguably the most popular part of the weeklong fair that runs through Saturday.
Most of the fairgrounds south of Traverse City were quiet Thursday morning, but the 4-H auction arena buzzed with the sound of hundreds of buyers eager to bid on more than 230 swine, 77 lambs, 56 steers, seven goats and one Cornish game hen.
Hogs dominated the first half of the all-day auction, snorting and squealing as they plodded around the auction pen one-by-one. Most incessantly sniffed the ground while their 4-H handlers prodded them along with sticks and canes.
Ron Bancroft, of Kingsley-based Wayne Bancroft Auction Service, stood above the pig pen early Thursday morning and rattled off per-pound prices while waving a gavel through the air and pointing out bidders.
Bancroft, 63, has worked as an auctioneer at the fair since age 17. Before that he raised a steer of his own during the auction’s early years. He said he remembers when the event was comprised of 10 steers standing in a field. Things have ballooned in size and scope since then.
“This program is an unbelievable program,” Bancroft said. “They don’t come any better than this anywhere in the nation, as far as I’m concerned.”
Bancroft’s main goal as an auctioneer is simple.
“We work (prices) up as high as we possibly can and it’s all for the kids,” he said.
Simon Wolf, president of the Traverse City-based company Signplicity, expressed the same sentiment when explaining why he bought a pig at this year’s auction.
Wolf won’t eat any of the pork products he receives after the animal is processed; he’s a lifelong vegetarian. But Wolf said 4-H teaches work-ethic, respect and responsibility to its members, including his own children.
“I do it to support them and show our business supports 4-H,” he said.
Purchases like Wolf’s translate to big bucks for 4-H members.
Jordan Peplinski, who’s about to start her junior year at Glen Lake High School, sold her 227-pound pig named Lola for $4.25 per-pound. Peplinski said her profits will go straight to her bank account as savings for college.
“This was a good year,” she said.