Hog heaven for kids
CHRISTY SWIFTThere's a new pig in town, and it probably belongs to an FFA kid.
Published: October 10, 2012
Published: October 10, 2012
Robert and Kim O'Connor, co-owners of Central Florida Show Pigs, sold 211 little oinkers to Florida youngsters last year, and the 2012 season is just ramping up.
Only three years into the business, Robert said they don't make any money off the pigs, but they do it to promote FFA and 4-H in the community and to help local youth have the experience of raising an animal even if their family can't afford it.
The O'Connors offer payment plans, work-for-pig programs, and a chance to win the cost of the pig back for kids whose hogs take top honors at the fair.
Raising an animal teaches responsibility, integrity and it helps shy kids break out of their shells, according to Robert.
"It's about the kids enjoying the projects," he added.
The O'Connors fund their show pig business with proceeds from another business, Southern Cleaning, Inc., which specializes in servicing distressed properties.
Neither one of them grew up with an agriculture background. Robert hails from Glen Burnie, Md., where he enjoyed a privileged childhood, then moved to Highlands County at the age of 12 when his father lost his job.
Kim was born in Pontiac, Mich., and grew up in Eldorado, Ill. Though she was raised in a small-town, rural area, Kim said agriculture just wasn't something girls did. She said she thinks it's "wonderful" that girls are now involved in 4-H and FFA, including their daughter Ashley, now 21.
In fact, it was the O'Connor kids who introduced their parents to pigs. Their eldest son, Brandon, got his first pig through his agriculture class in the seventh grade at Hill-Gustat Middle School. The school didn't have a barn, so the O'Connors wrote the first check to help fund one.
Over the years, they've gotten used to life with pigs around. "To me it's not a smell, it's an aroma," Robert joked.
Now, Kim and the couple's youngest son, 16-year-old Reece, help out daily at the barn at Sebring High School, which houses about 15 little piggies for FFA students who can't raise them at home.
"We're basically there to answer any questions, to guide them in the right way," explained Kim.
Some of those lessons include what and how much to feed the pigs, how to bathe them, and what kinds of medications to give. Because these show breeds (which include Yorkshires, "Blue Butts," Herefords, and Durocs) are so fragile, they get sick a lot, said Robert.
The O'Connors are available 24/7 by phone or text to their customers.
The pigs also have personalities and can end up being affectionate, loyal companions if you spend enough time with them, according to Robert. Kim said it's hard not to get attached to them.
They get attached to the kids they work with, too, and enjoy fielding their questions, including texts from students complaining that "my pig doesn't like me."
The response: Spend more time with it.
The goal is to help the students successfully raise their animal to the point where it can be sold at the fair for a profit.
The O'Connors also help students through the process of presenting and marketing their pig.
The O'Connors hope to make their business profitable in the future when the economy improves, but in the meantime they are happy to support programs like FFA and 4-H and lend a hand to busy high school agriculture teachers.
"I know I'm making a difference," said Robert.