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When Dionysius Clark initially decided to raise a pig as part of the National FFA Organization program at Lompoc High School, the 16-year-old said she was excited about her first true hands-on agricultural experience.

Clark, who is set to enter her junior year at Lompoc High this month, took out a federal loan through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, used those funds to purchase a male Hampshire pig at auction in February, and named her new acquisition Tito. She spent months caring for Tito with the ultimate goal of reselling him at auction in July during the Santa Barbara County Fair. Her plan was to make enough money to repay the loan and perhaps turn a tidy profit.

What started as a fun, educational adventure, however, has since turned into a stressful ordeal.

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Lompoc High student Dionysius Clark exercises her pig Tito at the LUSD FFA facility west of Lompoc on Thursday.

Because Tito failed to make weight in time for the fair, Clark has spent much of her summer unsuccessfully trying to find someone to take the pig off her hands, while at the same time continuing to rack up expenses related to Tito’s care.

“We’re really looking for anything we can do,” Clark said this past week, with the hopes that someone — anyone — in the area would be interested in taking in a pig.

“Someone could take him and butcher him, or just take him away,” she added.

Getting involved

Clark said she initially got involved in FFA, which started as the Future Farmers of America program, by mistake during her freshman year at Lompoc High.

She needed to sign up for a science class that year and ended up choosing agricultural biology without fully realizing what it entailed. She said she spent much of that first semester keeping to herself, but soon became close with her teacher and many of her classmates and grew enthusiastic about all the different aspects of the FFA program.

“It just blossomed from there,” she said.

Clark, who is from Chicago and moved to Lompoc at the age of 7, said she had no prior experience working with livestock. Still, after watching several of her classmates raise and take animals to auction during last year’s fair, Clark said she decided to get involved this year.

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Lakeysha Vaughn, left, talks with her daughter Dionysius Clark on Thursday at the LUSD FFA facility west of Lompoc, where Clark's pig Tito lives.

Clark obtained a $950 loan through the Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency. Between the purchase of the pig and the expenses related to its food and care — a 50-pound bag of feed, which Tito can go through in three days, costs about $25 — she is about $1,000 deep, with costs still piling up the longer she keeps him.

Ideally, Tito would have sold for $1,500 to $1,600 at auction.

“We ran out of the loan money awhile ago,” Clark said. “This is our personal money now, so this isn’t even the loan anymore. That’s why this is really getting tough.”

Making weight

Clark said she noticed the first signs of trouble when Tito proved to be a picky eater.

As the fair drew closer, he was failing to gain the necessary weight to go to auction. He needed to reach a minimum of 225 pounds, but was sitting at about 212 the day before the pig auctions.

Gretchen Flaherty, an FFA adviser at Lompoc High, said that it’s not uncommon for students to face this situation, and estimated that 2 to 3 percent of pigs each year are either underweight or overweight when the fair comes around.

“They usually try to go to local businesses or friends of parents and try to find people to buy it personally,” she said of the students’ prospects after missing out on the fair auctions. “Sometimes they can have a hard time finding a buyer if there happens to be an odd year when there’s a lot of overweight or underweight pigs or a shortage of excess buyers.”

Clark said she hit the phones immediately after the fair and began calling businesses all around Lompoc, Santa Maria and the Santa Ynez Valley. It was all to no avail, however.

“The No. 1 thing I’ve heard is that ‘we’ve already spent our money on things like that’ or ‘we’ve already spent our donation budget,’ so it was just too late,” she said.

Moving on

Lakeysha Vaughn, Clark’s mother, said at this late stage she’s willing to just eat the sunken costs and give Tito, who now weighs 230 pounds, to whoever will take him.

“For me, if I have to just come up with the money for the loan or do a payment plan, I’ll do that, but I’d still have a pig, and what are we gonna do with a pig?” Vaughn said.

Clark and her mom considered having Tito slaughtered at their own expense, but that would put them another $400 to $500 in the hole. As they continue to look for buyers — or takers — Tito is living solo on a Lompoc-area plot of land with pens that is owned by Lompoc Unified School District and utilized by FFA students.

“If someone wants to buy him, that would be our dream,” Vaughn said. “But at this point, it’s more like we’ve just got to get rid of this pig. … School is starting back, and honestly I’m getting kind of worried about him because it’s gonna start to get colder and he’ll be out here on this farm by himself.”

In addition to the costs associated with Tito, Clark said the pig has also proven to be a hindrance to her summer break from school. She was unable to go on a few planned trips because she can’t leave him for more than two days, she said, and she’s continued having to go feed and care for him.

In an effort to get Tito out of her family's care, Vaughn even appealed to the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, whose members protest at the fair each year.

“PETA, if you want to come get him, come save him from the slaughter,” Vaughn said, laughing but also serious. “We just need to find him a home or someone to buy him, that’s what we need.”

No love lost

Despite the issues that she’s dealt with over the past six months, Clark said her opinion of FFA remains unchanged and she still loves the organization and her experiences with it.

She does, however, have advice for future students who might decide to try raising a pig for the first time.

“I would just say that at the first sign that you see that (the animal) is not going to make weight for the fair, get started on looking for businesses right away, before the fair even comes around,” she said. “Because as soon as fair hits and they weigh the pigs and the pigs don’t make weight, all of those hundreds of students that go to fair are going to be looking for people (to buy them).”

She also said that it’s important to thoroughly examine the pig before purchasing him. She noted that a main reason she picked Tito was that a lot of other people seemed to be enamored with him.

While Vaughn said she wouldn’t necessarily encourage her daughter to raise another animal, she also expressed appreciation for the FFA and the experiences it has afforded her daughter.

“The kids who are in there and are serious about it, they’re getting good grades and they’re not hard-headed and doing all types of things they shouldn’t be doing,” said Vaughn, who is also from Chicago and has no background in agriculture. “They’re just really good kids who like to come together and have good, clean fun. That’s why I like her being in that organization, because there’s not many of them like that.”

Clark, who holds two offices in FFA, said she doesn’t plan to raise another animal during the coming school year, which begins Wednesday.

“The reason I did it (this year) was because all of my teammates were doing it,” she said. “At this point, I’ll just tell them I’ll meet them at the fair just to hang out. I’ll go up there; I don’t have to take a pig to do it.

“I think I’ll take a break this year,” she added. “Maybe my senior year I’ll try something, but for my junior year I think I’m just gonna focus on sports and focus on school.”

Anyone interested in purchasing or taking Tito is encouraged by Vaughn to either text or call her at 805-865-2351.

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Willis Jacobson covers the city of Lompoc for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @WJacobsonLR.