CHARLESTON, W.Va. - West Virginia may not be among the nation's top farm states, but it's likely the only place where anyone would pay $10,000 for a dozen eggs.
Or nearly $12,000 for an old-style, dry-cured ham or $800 a pound for a meaty slab of well-marbled bacon.
Such windfalls have become common at the West Virginia's Future Farmers of America's annual Ham, Bacon and Egg Show. Successful bidders win a hearty meal or two in most cases or donate the winnings to charity. The student farmers receive recognition and money to apply for college.
Organizers say the 64-year-old show has outlived similar events in Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina.
The FFA doesn't sanction a similar national event, nor is national spokesman Bill Stagg familiar with any similar state events, though the organization allows individual schools to conduct a variety of programs. "Not many local, smaller-school programs would be able to sustain something like that."
West Virginia officials say participation in the annual auction is growing, the result of adding commercial quality processing facilities at 20 schools over the past five years. Without the upgrades, students wouldn't be able to sell their wares, which are inspected and meet state and federal food rules. All they lack are nutrition labels.
The ham and bacon program started in the 1940s as a way for students who lived on farms to make some extra money.
Since 2000, the West Virginia Department of Agriculture has helped high schools upgrade their processing facilities to commercial standards at a cost of $100,000 or more in many cases. The upgrades enable the hams and bacons to be sold - and teach students about the process, said Gene Walker, a special assistant to Agriculture Commissioner Gus Douglass.
"You're building something that's going to be there for generations."
Participants agree that the program is about more than money.
Tyler Consolidated High senior Katlyn Hendershot says her four years in the program helped her prepare for West Virginia University and an agriculture education degree. She hopes to teach FFA students one day.
"I have learned life skills, record keeping skills ... how to survive in today's world, so to speak," Hendershot said. "It's made me a well-rounded person."
Cameron High School sophomore Kim Riley feels much the same. Riley's dozen eggs were judged the grand champion of this year's show - and they sold for a record $10,000 to Cincinnati-based Kroger Co.
The nation's largest traditional grocery chain spent more than $23,000 in total for an assortment of hams, bacon and eggs that Mid-Atlantic Region President Pete Williams said were destined for display in the company's stores, then donation to charity.
Though the price was set in a spirited auction, Riley's eggs were judged the best by professional standards.
"We grade them out pretty much the same as we grade them when we go in the grocery stores," said Herma Johnson, director of the state Agriculture Department's Division of Regulatory and Environmental Affairs. The eggs are graded as AA, A or B, then the shells are examined for dirt, calcium deposits, thin spots and other factors.
"All her eggs were double A's," Johnson said.
Riley and her brother agreed to split their auction earnings. When she announced she wanted to spend her share, Riley's father quickly chimed in: "No, you're saving part of it for college." The elder Riley adds that his children have learned about accounting, costs, profits, losses, responsibility, leadership. "It's a great program," said Mike Riley, who himself earned $1,635 for a dozen eggs at the sale in the 1980s. One of most vocal supporters is Gary Connell, a sales rep for Carhartt Inc. The Dearborn, Mich.-based company has long been a supporter of FFA, 4-H Club and other youth activities. His 26-year-old daughter went through the program and his 13-year-old son now is involved in 4-H. "It taught ‘em discipline. It taught ‘em morals. It taught ‘em scruples," he said. That fits neatly with the 495,000-member FFA's mission, Stagg said. FFA programs operate autonomously, offering everything from landscaping to a full-fledged meat processing program at a Philadelphia school. "It was originally founded to serve farm boys," Stagg said of FFA. "It now is so much broader." Students may be studying agriculture, but Stagg says they're really learning to prepare speeches, conduct meetings, build teams. At least for kids raising hogs, the road to the Ham, Bacon and Egg show - or a half dozen local shows - begins when they buy young animals in the spring. Students raise the animals, carefully tracking their progress and health, feed and other costs, as well as keeping hog pens and chicken coops clean. Throughout the process, advisers such as Leon Ammons from Tyler Consolidated High School, are involved as well. Ammons, like other advisers, visit farms to make sure students are raising animals properly up until slaughter time around the end of October or beginning of November. Ammons hauled four truckloads of hogs to slaughter, then spent four weeks supervising processing. His students' hams and bacons came out of the curing process in February, followed by a month of scrubbing, drying and trimming and a Friday through Tuesday stretch of smoking. "It's a lot of work," Ammons said. The end product is an old-style ham or bacon, the kind that used to be common but now are available only as specialty products. The beauty is that, properly prepared, the meat is shelf stable because of the low moisture and high salt content. "You can hang it out here in the woodshed and it'll last forever," Walker said. Longtime FFA teacher Virgil Wilkins has worked with students at Hundred High School in Wetzel County since the 1960s. During that time, he has advised at least 50 state winners, including Jeff Hostutler, who has held the record price - $11,977 - for a ham since 1975. But what sticks most, Wilkins said, is the lessons of entrepreneurship, commitment and effort. "The students learn so much about investment of money," Wilkins said. "It's teaching kids total responsibility." AP-CS-03-24-07 1300EDTcomments powered by Disqus