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Love Me Tender-loin

Seamus Cummins
Robert Scheer

One Swine Day: While his classmates plan on high-tech futures, Seamus Cummins figures he'll be bringing home the bacon when he realizes his dream of owning a commercial hog farm.

On the average, a teenager growing up in the Santa Cruz suburbs does not dream of being a hog farmer--but then Seamus Cummins isn't your average teen

By Kelly Luker

TRUTH BE KNOWN, adolescence is a crummy time. As if the annoying buzz of raging hormones weren't bad enough, there's the relentless elbow of peer pressure in a young'un's side. No matter how sweet the siren call of rebellion, the sad reality is that most approval-starved kids are destined to dress, act, talk and walk in lockstep order.

Then there's Seamus Cummins, a 17-year-old Soquel High student who is gleefully two-stepping to a far, far different drummer. While his pals are dreaming of spring break and young babes, Cummins dreams of livin' large some day--with his very own commercial hog farm.

Exactly how does a kid raised in the suburbs of vegan-loving, Internet-embracing Santa Cruz decide to follow his bliss behind 300 pounds of ham hocks? The answer, Cummins will tell you, is his high school's "Ag" department, a hidden jewel of horticultural and bestial talents tucked away behind the Soquel High School campus.

Instructor Matt Zemny offers a quick tour of the floristry class, a working business that shipped out 150 floral arrangements the Friday before Easter. The students are expected to prospect for customers, develop ads, print promotional brochures and business cards on one of the department's nine Macs, and handle the books for the business.

Behind the classrooms are rows of shrubs and trees that the landscaping class contracts with businesses to grow and plant. "A lot of people don't realize that the
second-best paying industry for college graduates is agriculture," Zemny says. "And it's not just 'cows and plows' anymore."

But there's someone who has taken up the traditional yoke of agriculture, and Zemny leads me out to the animal paddock to meet this nontraditional Santa Cruz native. A tall young man with close-cropped red hair ambles over after gently swatting a sheep to send her on her way. Asked the name of his woolly friend, Seamus pauses. "Sheep," he finally says, a little embarrassed to reveal how dry the well of creativity has run.

But it's not what's in a name, but what's on those cloven hooves, right? So it's off to meet Cummins' pride and joy, a 325-pound Durock hog named "Miss Bama." Miss Bama is grunting--pardon the cliché--like a pig, so Cummins muscles past her two buddies, "Skinny" and "Lucky #2," into the food room for some grub.

"They eat about 5 or 10 pounds of food a day," Cummins shouts over the deafening squeals and grunts, affirming time-honored cliché No. 2: They eat like pigs.

By now I'm grabbing shallow breaths through my shirt sleeve, having ascertained for myself time-honored cliché No. 3: They smell like pigs. Of course, explains Cummins defensively, it is not our fine swine themselves that stink, it is the aromatic blending of mud and pig poop. Regardless, I readily agree with his Highness of Ham that it would be a refreshing idea to take Lucky #2 for a walk away--far away--in the rolling fields.

Cliché No. 4: Pigs are smart. Lucky opens the gate himself and runs out to freedom, squealing with joy. Cummins disappears after him and leaves me to ponder what happened to Lucky #1, which Cummins explains when he returns a few minutes later panting heavily. The first Lucky went to the Salinas Valley Fair, it appears, and did not come home.

To put it bluntly, "Lucky" wasn't. The folks who enjoyed his company for dinner and breakfast, however, no doubt felt quite fortunate.

Popping the Pig

THIS LEADS TO ANOTHER question for our young Pope of Pork: What makes a pig a winner (or a wiener, as the case may be)? Cummins is so glad I asked. He climbs into the pen and studies a Yorkshire English Large White cross named Carolina. "I'd like to see her on a bigger frame," he muses, then adds enthusiastically, "But her hams!"

Grasping the perfectly heart-shaped buttocks, he beckons me to gaze on them. He's right. One wonders how sheep, not pigs, got starring roles in so many X-rated farmboy fantasies.

Asked what the pigs dress out to--and we aren't talking top hat and tails here--Cummins figures that a 250-pound porker will offer up about 100 pounds in chops, sausage and hams.

"We had one slaughtered--uh, 'processed'--a while back," Cummins explains, quickly amending the Final Deed with suggested industry terms. In typically schizophrenic style, the school curriculum can offer tools and guidance for raising livestock, but butchering, as a topic--and certainly as "show-and-tell"--is carefully sidestepped nowadays.

"We used to slaughter on school grounds, but people complained," Cummins laments. Life was easier, he remembers, when you could just "pop the pig," then slice and dice. He turns to me. "Do you know what it's like trying to get a live 250-pound pig into a trailer?"

Not surprisingly, Cummins gets more than his share of grief. One of his nicknames, for example, is "pig boy." "I get criticism from about everybody in this school," he says good-naturedly. "I don't let it get to me--I see where they're going."

There's another reason such ribbing doesn't bother him. "I get 10 to 14 piglets in a litter, and I sell them for $120 each," he explains. It's not exactly a cliché, but our curly-tailed friends are apparently quite fecund. Doing the math, Cummins figures that with the right stock he could eventually gross $100,000 or more a year. "If I had my semen catalogue," he promises, "I'd show you some good ones."

While Lucky #2 is gamboling in the pasture, Cummins ruminates on the moment of enlightenment that set him on his current path to future links. As he recalls, a Future Farmers of America officer showed up at Cummins' New Brighton Middle School class to recruit for Soquel's Ag department. The officer explained that ag classes were an "easy A in science," and the youngster was sold. Then Cummins got pork gristle in his blood, and his young life was never the same.

"I've changed big time," admits the future farmer. "I used to wanna be cool--I'd dress in baggy-ass pants." Now he wears Wranglers and working cowboy boots--not those pointy-toed dude-ranch boots. Seamus tirelessly promotes the Ag department, modestly noting that he is the Monterey Bay Future Farmers' second-best extemporaneous speaker. Guess there's more than one way to ham it up.

The Lord of Lard's evangelizing has paid off. "My cousin got into pigs," he announces proudly. Like Seamus, the cousin is not exactly in the heart of pig country--San Ramon, in this case. But no matter. Perhaps the two will someday gather up Skinny and Miss Bama, a few semen catalogues and head out to where the chitlins still rule.

Even there, I'd be willing to bet that a certain Seamus Cummins will still be bopping to a decidedly unique beat.

To learn more about ordering livestock, dog-grooming help, floral arrangements or landscaping services from Soquel's Agriculture Department, call 429-3612.

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From the April 10-16, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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