Junior Showmanship Competition at the Howard County Fair

Nolan Wise, 8, attempts to lead a cow around the pen during the Junior Showmanship Competition at the Howard County Fairgrounds on Saturday, Aug. 2. (Photo by Noah Scialom, Baltimore Sun Media Group / August 2, 2014)

When the Howard County 4-H program tightened age restrictions on livestock participation last year, Rhonda Winkler took notice.

Winkler saw the potential downside of children under 8 not being able to participate unless they lived on a farm. She realized they might never take an interest in agriculture, and subsequently not join 4-H, if the experience wasn't available to them at an early age.

She also saw an opportunity, and, as Winkler will candidly tell you, she's not one to stand idly by.

"I have a big mouth," Winkler said, smiling and sitting on a guardrail inside the show pavilion at the Howard County Fairgrounds in West Friendship on Saturday.

Winkler was able to convince the Howard County Farm Bureau to fund a Junior Showmanship program, which completed its first-ever completion on the first day of the 69th Annual Howard County Fair.

The program is available to children ages 6 through 9 and offers them a hands-on experience they would be otherwise be missing. The participants are required to take two workshops conducted by Winkler at her Woodbine farm, Steel Fire Farm, as part of the program. They also have to come by her farm or another bureau farm once a week to get work with the animals, which includes cows, pigs, goats and sheep.

In its first year, the program had 36 participants and 17 classes. The children are divided by age group and the animal they show, and Winkler said it is normal for participants to show multiple animals.

The program, run by the Farm Bureau, is not affiliated with the popular 4-H program, which tasks children 8 through 18 with the daily responsibility of raising an animal for a year, culminating in the showing and auction of the animal. For Howard County 4-H participants, the annual program ends with the fair's Livestock Auction, which is scheduled for the evening of Aug. 8 at the show pavilion.

And while not officially linked, Winkler and others see the programs working in concert.

"This program is going to feed into the 4-H program and make it better, too," said Winkler, who is involved in 4-H as well. "We all need to work together in any way in every way that we can."

The program is like tee-ball for agriculture. One day, the kids are going to outgrow it and want to move on to Little League, but getting that first taste of what it's like to handle an animal is what's about.

"It's a little appetizer," Winkler said. "A lot of times kids get involved in stuff and it's too much too quick, and they get burnt out. This is a little taste. And if next year they want to do it, they order an entree."

Matt and Brandy Harbin, of Woodbine, have children in the 4-H program and the Junior Showmanship program. For their 6-year-old, Brady Harbin, who took home second place in the 6-year-old dairy contest, it has been rewarding.

"It gives them a head start," Brandy Harbin said. "This gets them hands-on and interacting with animals. When they get to be 8t, they are ready for the 4-H program."

Mt. Airy resident Karrie Harrington, mother of Charlotte, 7, said she likes the program because it gives her a chance to spend quality time with her daughter.

"I get to be involved with my kids. Every day working with the animals. It's awesome," she said.

Howie Feagan, president of the Howard County Farm Bureau, said the organization recognized the importance of getting kids interested in agriculture at a young age.

"They are at an age where they are really interested and where their lifestyle wants them to explore everything," he said. "If you don't use this program to work with that exploration attitude they have, they'll lose their interest and go onto other stuff."

Winkler agrees.

"If we don't get them at a young age, they might take their interest some other place. Everything else starts at 5, so that's why this was really, really important," she said.

And while Feagan and Winkler both said one of the key attributes of the program is teaching children responsibility, they both concede it needs to be fun, too.

"Every kid out there has a smile on their face," Winkler said. "That's what it's about. ... We want to keep agriculture alive in Howard County, and these are our future agriculture leaders right here."