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Youngsters earn spots to raise pigs to show at the 2013 Strawberry Festival

PLANT CITY

It wasn't supposed to be this easy, yet there was Erin Lytle, a 16-year-old from the Fishhawk Trails suburb in Lithia, standing up, arms raised, letting out a loud "whoooo."

Lytle, a member of the Newsome High School chapter of Future Farmers of America, had just heard her name called at Monday night's swine drawing, which drew more than 400 people.

The lottery is held yearly to determine which Hillsborough County youngsters will show their pigs at the 11-day Florida Strawberry Festival, which starts Feb. 28.

Lytle admits she's "a newbie" when it comes to swine and anything else having to do with agriculture. Her interest was piqued when her friend Lindsey White, 17, won the district championship for swine at the 2012 Florida State Fair. Lytle joined Newsome's FFA chapter only a week ago.

"They're so cute. I like their noses," she said, laughing, while explaining her pig fascination. "I want a nice pink one."

Space is limited at the festival's Evelyn and Batista Madonia Sr. Agricultural Show Center, so not every youngster wanting to show their swine gets that chance. Of the 259 vying for spots, 85 youngsters were chosen. Lytle couldn't believe her luck.

"I don't know. It just happened," she said. "I just really wanted a pig."

The crowd filed inside the center just after 6 p.m. Youngsters from third to 12th grades formed a line as organizers perused a list of names to ensure each child had preregistered by Sept. 7. Those who qualified deposited ping-pong sized balls into a perforated gold-colored canister.

Shortly after 7:15 p.m., Lauren Der, the 2009 Florida Strawberry Festival Queen, stood to call off the numbers. The crowd fidgeted, anxious to get started. Most of the youngsters were seated with their parents. Some peeled away to laugh and share the moment with friends.

Then came the first number and name, followed by a raucous cheer from a section of the crowd.

So it went for the next 25 minutes.

"At first I wasn't sure they called my number, then I heard my name and turned to my friends and said, 'Did they just call my name?' " Lytle said.

Although classmate White was also chosen, their friend Alexa Pridemore, 17, wasn't so fortunate.

"That's all right. We got each others' backs," Pridemore said.

Lane Robbins, 11, sat with his parents, Gary and Dawn, and little sister Shayde, 8. He wasn't as upbeat about missing out.

"I was so looking forward to this day and I thought I would get drawn," he said. "I've been waiting and waiting. I'll keep putting in my name until I win, I guess."

Festival general manager Paul Davis explained the appeal of the drawing and subsequent tending to the pigs is that it brings families together. The youngsters purchase the animals and raise them in pens at home or schools equipped with agricultural programs.

They also study the species to learn about care and conditioning, then bring the fatted animals to a weigh-in the day before the festival. Later, the animals are paraded on a carpet into the center to be judged on conditioning and overall size. Throughout the five-month experience, the children must keep up their grades and record their pigs' progress.

"This teaches them about responsibility and how to care for a living thing," Davis said. "These are the best kids in our county."

Showing a pig can be a costly exercise. Pig prices run from $200 to $350 each. Most of the swine are trucked in from a supplier in Georgia. Then there's the care and feeding of the animals and cost of building a pen. But the rewards can reach into the $3,000 to $4,000 range when the animals are auctioned at the festival. Some parents count on the windfall to help pay for college.

"I'm expecting it will cost about $1,000," said Michele Simcox, a science teacher at Marshall Middle School in Plant City.

Her daughter Madison, 13, was chosen to raise a pig. Simcox said they'll figure out the expenses somehow.

"It's worth it," she said. "I'm happy because it's expanding her world."

Times photojournalist Kathleen Flynn contributed to this report. Rich Shopes may be reached at rshopes@tampabay.com or (813) 661-2454.

Youngsters earn spots to raise pigs to show at the 2013 Strawberry Festival 09/20/12 [Last modified: Thursday, September 20, 2012 4:30am]

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