In a labyrinth of metal gates and sawdust, Emma Jackson dug a palmful of marshmallows from a plastic bin of corn feed and slid open the trailer door where a pig was nosing at the gap, waiting for her.
Major is one of Emma’s two market hogs who have been the center of her world for the past six months in preparation for the Central Virginia Livestock Show.
She’s been competing there since she was nine. This year likely is her last.
Emma, 18, has been caring for Blaze and Major since they were weaned, spending hours sitting in their pens, brushing them down and offering jelly beans and marshmallows to make the kind of connection that will pay-off in the ring.
By the time they walked into the competition at the Central Virginia Livestock Show on Friday, her work had paid off. She clinched the title of grand champion in senior swine showmanship, and took home the title of reserve champion in the market hog show that evening.
Emma said she would have been happy regardless of the outcome, but it felt incredible to know the judge could see the work and time she had put into her animals.
The first, second and final drive in swine showmanship of the senior division took place in a circular pen under the vaulted ceiling of the Lynchburg Livestock Market in Rustburg.
For two days, about 70 exhibitors, ages nine to 19 from Amherst, Appomattox, Bedford, Campbell and Nelson counties would gather in the glare of fluorescence and the rattle of animal pens, as churning metal fans kicked up sawdust and the wet-wool smell of sheep and cattle.
Guiding Major beside her with gentle taps from a slender pig whip, Emma and other exhibitors walked their hogs around the ring, working to position their animals between themselves and the judge, maintain eye contact with him and keep their hogs sleek and clean of sawdust and dirt.
Major, a belted pig with a bold, pink stripe around his middle, literally shined. Admittedly, some of that was from his rigorous washing before he entered the ring, with “show glo” swine spray and Champion’s Choice oil liberally applied and his hide and skin brushed.
“He smells better than I do,” Emma joked.
Leaned up against the side of the trailer after the showmanship final drive, Emma was flushed with adrenaline and spring sun, fresh off a win in the ring, the culmination of months of a regimented schedule with her hogs — each day feeding them three square meals, providing walking time, washing and plenty of brush downs.
“I’m on a high right now, I’m really, really happy,” she said,
Livestock judging and showing is her sport, she said. She first got involved through Bedford 4H, and now is a member of both 4H and Smith Mountain Future Farmers of America, the FFA chapter at Staunton River High School. She was in the ring with students she had been competing against since she was nine, across school divisions, and said if things are coming to an end, she’s going to make the most of it.
“It’s kind of bittersweet,” Emma said, “but I’m really excited for the next chapter.”
Next fall, she is heading west to Black Hawk College in Illinois on a full-scholarship for livestock judging. She said she wants to pursue something in agriculture, such as education or large animal veterinary.
Emma and her brothers grew up on a farm in Bedford County, a handful of acres where her family raised a menagerie of animals, from cattle and pigs, to the occasional goats, sheep or chickens.
Amy Jackson, Emma’s mom, said they always have different animals around, and when the children chose to pursue 4H, FFA and ag, they let them take on the responsibilities of their own animals.
“She’s matured through all the experiences she’s had,” Amy Jackson said of Emma. “The lessons these kids learn through raising animals, they’re invaluable.”
Earlier in April, Emma and her brother, Clay Jackson, walked down the ruts of a dirt road behind Liberty High School, grass growing in the pitted tire treads, a fenced enclosure delineating the Liberty FFA program’s land lab, where about a dozen lambs were led in loping circles by the assembled students.
It’s good practice for everyone — Emma and Clay can observe the animals, and the Liberty middle and high school students, many of them headed to CVLS the next week, can hear feedback on their lambs.
Lindsay Tomlinson, an ag teacher at Liberty High School and FFA advisor, has known Emma and Clay since they started with 4H, and her own children were at the land lab in April, a lamb dozing against her 8-year-old son’s leg.
She said the show, the school’s ag programs and 4H are crucial to getting children involved with agriculture and livestock, many of whom wouldn’t have the opportunity otherwise.
Clay, 13, said showing animals runs in the family. He got involved with showing and livestock judging after watching Emma and their older brother do it, too.
“I wanted to be like them, wanted to try it out,” he said. “I fell in love with it from there, and picked it up and ran with it.”
This year at CVLS, Clay is showing a solid red steer named Frog. Born through the night of Leap Day, Clay said Frog is a “bit of a deadhead” but real laid back. Sometimes, Clay sets up a hammock in the corner of Frog’s pen, and Frog will lay his head across his lap so they can both just doze.
Emma said when she wakes up to go check on the pigs, she’ll find Clay already at the barn, brushing Frog down in his stall.
“It’s definitely a team effort,” she said. “Being siblings, having the same passion for agriculture … we help each other out a lot.”
The day of the CVLS show, Clay was ready to step in if Emma needed it — both her hogs being showed in separate weight classes — and he patted down her fly away hair before the market show while she swatted him away.
“Not every kid they go to school with is getting up in the morning and taking care of all their animals before they go to school, and giving up their evenings and weekends, but they love it,” Amy Jackson said. “There’s definitely a lot of hard work to it, but you have to love it to do it.”
Emma said it’s a learning experience, one that has taught her responsibility, practice and patience.
“We know that we’re the future of agriculture,” Emma said, and she wants to be out teaching ag to other students, watching them grin ear-to-ear like she did the first time she raised and cared for a lamb, or clinched first prize with a hog she raised herself.
Even nine years later, Emma is beaming when she leaves the ring, rushing toward her mom, dad and brother who are waiting for her behind the gate.
“Not every kid they go to school with is getting up in the morning and taking care of all their animals before they go to school, and giving up their evenings and weekends, but they love it. There’s definitely a lot of hard work to it, but you have to love it to do it.”
— Amy Jackson, mother of Emma and Clay Jackson
“It’s definitely a team effort. Being siblings, having the same passion for agriculture … we help each other out a lot.”
— Emma Jackson, speaking about her brother, Clay