The dairy farms that once covered the rolling hills of Wise County like butter on toast are all but gone.
The fruit orchards and vegetable farms that once peppered the land around Alvord have dwindled to a few small patches. The once-common fruit stands beside the busy highway are now an anomaly.
But every year the Wise County Youth Fair reminds us that a number of young people still wake up and smell the manure.
The yellow sun cracks over the trees like a broken egg spilling light, and 9-year-old Cale Laaser is up, too – ready to start the day by tending to his small flock of broilers. Cale and his older brother Thaine are up early every morning to check on the chickens and pigs in the barn at their country home north of Decatur.
“Getting them up and moving is the most important part,” Cale said as he checks on the feed and water of his pen full of broilers. “They have to get up and eat.”
Even though the Youth Fair only lasts a week, and each showing runs only a few minutes, countless hours of work are first poured into getting an animal ready for the arena.
Cale’s specialty is chickens.
“It’s fun to take care of them,” Cale said.
Thaine prefers hogs.
“I like the pigs,” Thaine said. “They take more work to take care of, and I like their personalities. They’ll follow you around. When he was little he’d curl up in my lap. He’d probably crush me if he tried to do that now.”
Thaine’s hog, named Swope after former Texas A&M star receiver Ryan Swope, has bulked up from a 30-pound piglet when he first got him last fall to a 265-pound behemoth.
“This pig has good muscle composition,” Thaine observes.
In the stall next to him snorts Manziel, Cale’s hog, who’s even a tad bigger than Swopes and ready for the Youth Fair. He, too, is named for an A&M football star.
Every day Thaine feeds Swope, makes sure he doesn’t get too hot or cold, takes him for walks, brushes and bathes him – all to eventually show him in the arena.
“It teaches them to be a more well-rounded person,” said mom Shelly Laaser. “It gets them out of their comfort zone. 4-H helped me when I was young. It helped me find the field I wanted to major in and allowed me to earn a scholarship.”
It also keeps the tradition and spirit of farming alive even in families who don’t come from agricultural backgrounds.
“Who would have thought we’ve have pigs and chickens?” Mrs. Laaser said. “Neither me or Jared (my husband) grew up on a farm.”
Now Thaine, 13, a student at McCarroll Middle School in Decatur, is in his third year showing animals at the Wise County Youth Fair. He won grand champion with broilers his first year.
It’s his little brother Cale’s first year to enter the competition, and he’s ready to achieve all he can through participation in the Youth Fair.
“I want to earn a scholarship to attend Texas A&M,” he said. “I’d like to work in poultry science.”
The family farm ranks as one of the most rapidly vanishing symbols from the American landscape. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), more than 5 million family farms operated in 1950. Today the number hovers at a little more than 2 million.
“Corporate farms are taking over,” said Charles Wittmer, agricultural science teacher at Alvord High School. “With the cost of fuel and feed, a lot of them can’t afford it. But if managed properly, it can still be successful. It’s vital we keep this alive.”
“Agriculture is a staple; we all use it,” said Kim Dunlap, a 4-H leader in Slidell. “What a lot of people don’t understand is where it comes from. The kids here learn where it comes from. There’s fewer people involved in agriculture. There are fewer family farms. I don’t think there’s as large a group of people that appreciate agriculture as there used to be.”
But thanks to the Wise County Youth Fair, the percentage of folks who understand the heritage and tradition of agriculture is a bit larger here.