As school supplies are packed away for summer vacation, Emma Ann Bush ends fourth grade with fond memories of her two new friends, Priscilla and Matilda.
No, they aren’t classmates, but a pair of show pigs who helped the 9-year-old mark her debut as a 4-H livestock exhibitor, which she capped off with a showmanship ribbon from the Georgia Junior National Livestock Show in February at the Georgia National Fairgrounds and Agricenter.
Bush, a student at Gainesville Homeschool Academy, was Hall County’s sole 4-H show pig exhibitor for the winter season, and the first in roughly 20 years, by Hall County Extension agent Garrett Hibb’s best estimation.
She follows in the footsteps of her father, Geary Bush, who himself is a veteran 4-H show pig exhibitor from Seminole County.
For four months, the Bushes — Emma Ann, her dad Geary, mom Melissa and siblings Mary Laura and Towns — made daily trips to the family farm to feed Priscilla and Matilda, who each consumed about 5 pounds of pig feed per day, and take them for walks while training them to hold their heads high, which is one of things they’re judged on in the show ring.
The trick, according to Emma Ann, is to guide them with a stick dipped in honey held above their heads.
Because no other 4-H show pig exhibitors live in Hall, the pickings for high-quality pig feed were slim, Geary said. When Priscilla and Matilda’s supply ran low, the family would travel to Bogart to replenish, loading up the back of Geary’s SUV until the next trip.
The pigs also required multiple baths per week to keep their hair and skin conditioned, and for extra shine on show days, Sugar Coat, a natural livestock whitening spray — a distinction between exhibiting today and Geary’s last competition 24 years ago.
“You actually clipped the hair fairly close (back then), but now, the trend is you wash them — some people wash them every day, some people wash them once a week — but they’re almost daily putting some type of shampoo or conditioner on their hair or their skin because what their hair and skin looks like actually has a lot to do with how successful they are in the show ring. We were not ready for that. Our very wet Northeast Georgia winter made for lots of mud and dirty pigs.”
Despite her composure, Emma Ann said she was pretty nervous on show days, but also full of pride and excitement. For out-of-town shows, she was up at 5 a.m. to get ready and on the road. To save time and a potential chase, Emma Ann noted she and her parents would corral the pigs the night before to wash and load them into the trailer, which was already hooked up and ready to go.
Emma Ann admitted she was intimidated by the pigs’ size at first — both weighed between 220 and 280 pounds — but said pigs have quickly become her favorite animal, second only to dogs, and not just because they enjoyed getting back scratches and belly rubs as much as she enjoyed giving them.
Though it may be too early to say whether she’ll stick with it for the remainder of her academic career, Emma Ann said spectators haven’t seen the last of her in the show ring.
She’ll be making her comeback next season, but with a new set of pigs by her side, as Priscilla and Matilda have returned home to Tolar, Texas, to join a breeding program to produce future generations of show pigs.
“I’m proud of her,” Geary said. “I’m glad she’s found something that she enjoys doing, and it’s neat that it’s something I enjoyed doing — it was one of my favorite things that I did as a kid, and probably one of the most beneficial things I did. Even though she’s the exhibitor, we’re all kind of part of it.”
It seems showing livestock may become even more of a family affair for the Bushes, as both of Emma Ann’s siblings have expressed an interest in showing goats and dairy cattle.
Of all the lessons Priscilla and Matilda taught her, Emma Ann feels the most valuable might be the newfound sense of ownership and responsibility.
Though it proved to be more work than she first expected, Emma Ann said her parents did a good job of preparing her, and they all made a habit of watching informative YouTube videos on how to best care for pigs. They also had a bit of help from Priscilla and Matilda’s breeder, an old friend and former 4-H rival from Geary’s hometown in South Georgia.
If given the chance, the only thing Emma Ann would do differently, she said, is practice a little more.
“This was a great year of learning and growing,” Melissa said. “If any of us were like, ‘We’ll do it for you,’ (Emma Ann) was like, ‘No, these are my pigs, I need to do it. I got this.’”
“She’s definitely developed some confidence, too, over the last few months, from being a little bit timid around pigs to being found laying in the pen with pigs,” Geary added. “And confidence in herself, that, ‘Even though I’ve never done this before and I don’t know how to do this, I’m walking in a ring with 30 other competitors inside an arena that may have a couple hundred people sitting in the seats.’ She’s able to go out there and perform, and perform well.”