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Pierce County pigs make the grade at State Fair

After years of trying, the Freund family of the town of El Paso came home big winners from the 2007 Minnesota State Fair.

While his father Michael did most of the advance work, 13-year-old Patrick showed the family's pigs, winning the titles of Senior Champion Swine, Senior Champion Boar and Senor Champion Gilt.

"We came in dead last for years - we honestly did," said Jeanne Freund. "This was honestly our year."

Along with plaques for the top awards, the family earned a mitt full of ribbons and about $500 in cash.

About 10 years ago, Michael got back into raising swine at an older son's farm near Plum City. This is the 6th year the Freunds have taken pigs to the Minnesota fair.

Some years they won no prizes. Other years they won just a few.

"This year it really paid off," said Jeanne. "It was well deserved is what I'm saying," she said of the awards won by her husband and son for the 12 animals they took to the fair.

To him, said Michael, a bigger honor was winning 6th place in the carcass contest at the National Barrow Show last year.

While the look of the live animal is evaluated in other contests, it was the meat - "the finished product" -- that earned the award at the national show, said Michael.

Michael, who grew up near Plum City, got his first pig as a freshman in high school. At age 14 he took the long bus ride alone to the Wisconsin Duroc Breeders Association annual meeting in Milwaukee.

When his adult son John needed help on his Plum City farm, Michael, who works at the Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery, jumped back into the business with both feet.

The Freund farm raises about 150 pigs a year, marketing them in South St. Paul. They generally sell the animals at 80 to 100 pounds and now have 70 to 80 ready to go to market, said Michael.

Michael spends hours every day at the Plum City farm, tending the animals. Patrick, now a 7th grader at Ellsworth Middle School, helps after school and on weekends.

"He's just with them every single day, whether he likes it or not, and sometimes he doesn't like it so much," said his mom.

Patrick started showing pigs at five, often working with animals three times his size, said Jeanne.

"When he was too little to do it on his own, he walked behind his dad," she said.

This year Patrick also showed pigs for the first time at the World Pork Expo in Iowa, coming home with 5th and 6th place awards.

"It was a junior show, so it was all about Pat," said his mother. She said the shows have become the family's vacations.

This week the family is showing its animals at the National Barrow Show in Austin, Minn.

While rewarding in some ways, raising hogs doesn't always pay off, said the Freunds.

Jeanne calls it "a lot of hard work for a little bit of nothing."

"It's below the break-even point right now," said Michael of the market.

Back in 1998, the Freunds, like many other hog farmers, were giving pigs away to anyone willing to pay the processing costs.

"We honestly filled everybody's freezer that we knew," said Jeanne, explaining that it was cheaper to be rid of the animals than to keep feeding and caring for them.

Now, said Michael, he is hoping to find his place in the market selling hogs as "seed stock." That means producing pigs with right intermuscular structure for good meat.

While winning ribbons helps, the real value of the animals is the quality of the meat, said Michael.

"When the pig's hanging cut, that's where the money is going to be," he said.