She might not have been born in a barn, but she certainly grew up in one. Megan Hunker has been showing livestock from a very young age. Her first memorable experience was as a four-year-old showing pigs in a National Swine Association event. Sixteen years later, she walked away from the prestigious American Royal Livestock Show, her last eligible Junior Show, as the Senior Sheep Showmanship Champion.
“I’ve grown up with livestock my entire life, I was born into it, my love for it grew from there,” Megan said. “I started out showing pigs to just get show ring experience and once I was old enough I grew into all four species. We show market lambs now, but I’ve shown Angus cattle before and hogs at the state and county fair; I did goats a few times, too.”
While hard work and dedication are standard to be a successful junior showman, Megan faced a few exceptional challenges on her journey.
When her parents, Roger and Laurie Hunker, took her to the first show, they had no way of knowing the passion she fostered and the triumphs she would have. They also had no way of knowing the shows would become her inspiration for getting out of the hospital and that getting back in the show ring was the only way she would consider herself fully recovered from an organ transplant.
“I was diagnosed with kidney disease at the age of 13 and had a transplant when I was 15. So just being healthy and having the energy to go to all the shows was the hardest part,” Megan said. “I was first put in the hospital about September when I was 13 and my goal to get out of the hospital was to show lambs in Louisville (at the North American International Livestock Expo) in November. I didn’t let it slow me down. It definitely tried, but I was able to keep going with the help of my family.”
Not only did Megan get to show at Louisville, she also won her age division just two months after her hospital stay. And when she says her family helped her, she’s not just talking about her parents and siblings, but the “show family” she has acquired along the way.
“Over the years we’ve met so many people that care about me; a lot of good show friends that come over to the house or come to the hospital. So it’s not only your immediate family, it’s that family that you’ve shown with since you were 9-years-old,” Megan said.
Megan acknowledges the American Royal honor as her biggest accomplishment after being in the hospital again just a month before the show. Although it was her last junior show, it was her first time showing at the event.
“I went in there setting high standards for myself and was able to fulfill what I wanted to do out there and it kind of put the icing on the cake. I’ve had a very successful show career; I’ve learned a lot. That was just the icing on the cake to end my career,” Megan said.
An active member of both the 4-H and FFA youth programs every year that she was eligible, Megan strongly believes that showing livestock as a youth provides countless lessons for participants and is a valuable opportunity.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for everyone to get involved with 4-H and FFA. Whether they’ve grown up on a farm or not there are experiences that can shape a person,” Megan said. “They’ve definitely shaped me.”
Megan credits showing livestock with teaching her responsibility, sportsmanship and how to be a mentor. She learned how to be accountable for the well being of her animals, be friendly while still being competitive and how to give back by helping younger members — including her younger siblings 17-year-old Sarah and 11-year-old Austin, who have caught the same contagious fever for showing.
The programs have given Megan, and the other youth involved, a leg up on others because of the experiences they’ve had in the show ring. They develop a strong work ethic employers look for and know how to communicate with peers and authority figures as they shared their knowledge with judges and learned to be friends with their competitors. All qualities that she believes can’t be taught in a classroom or on-the-job training.
She also admits showing has its up and downs and she’s shed her fair share of tears when it comes time to send the animal she’s worked with all year off to market. At times it can be frustrating for Megan when others don’t understand the relationship that is formed with each animal.
“You know when you buy that animal that at the end of the summer it is eventually going to feed someone. That’s something we have to learn how to deal with. When people on the outside who are questioning how we’re raising our livestock and agriculture is doing things these days, they don’t understand the passion the people behind it have for what they’re doing,” Megan said.
She advises other junior showmen to take the time to talk to those who take an interest in what they are doing and be an ambassador for the industry even when they might be busy preparing for a show.
“Just talk to them and answer their questions. If you don’t have the answers, refer them to a resource who does. I think that’s something that a lot of people in ag need to do,” she said. “We want to get fired up and angry when certain groups send out messages. I think we need to take a step back and see what we can do to better educate these people instead of just getting upset about the situation.”
Her other piece of advice is simple: don’t give up.
“There were definitely times when it would have been easier to give up, when my doctors would have liked me to,” Megan said. “After my transplant I was not supposed to be around livestock for at least a year. I was not supposed to be in contact with any animals of any sort and finally after about 5 or 6 months, I got them to clear me because they understood that that was my life. I don’t feel like I totally healed — physically, mentally, emotionally — until I was allowed to go back to my normal life.
“It would have been easier to give up then, but I’ve been in the barn since I could walk; giving up was never an option. Being involved in agriculture is always going to be a part of me.”
Megan’s passion for sharing her story and educating others eventually led her to major in agricultural communication at The Ohio State University in Columbus.
“I originally wanted to be a nursing major, after all my health experiences. I wasn’t enjoying it as well as I thought I would. Then I started joining some clubs on ag campus and switched my major. I finally found my fit,” Megan said. “Everybody thinks Ohio State’s such a big place, but once you get into your degree program you find those people that have similar interests as you.”
Also studying animal science as a minor, Megan has joined the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences Livestock Judging Team. Currently in her junior year, she intends to use the skills she has developed at Ohio State to be involved in photography and design work within the livestock industry while helping to inform others about why farmers do what they do.