Spontaneous applause erupted as the names of 4-H'ers were called Thursday evening, Aug. 9, at the Howard County Fair as youths and their families gathered for the annual potluck dinner and awards.
One by one, kids carrying the rabbit project went up to receive their awards. The enthusiastic applauding did not subside until the last person's name had been called.
Unless you carry the 4-H rabbit project, you probably don't realize how much energy is put into this project.
Sure, there's taking care of rabbits. Sure, there's the rabbit show in which each rabbit is judged as to how closely that rabbit fits the ideal description. But taking care of rabbits and the rabbit show are only the tip of the iceberg.
Besides the rabbit show, there is the showmanship contest, the bred-by-exhibitor contest and the judging contest. In the showmanship contest, young people need to demonstrate their knowledge of what professional judges look for in the health, body conformation and markings of a rabbit. The prize is the much-coveted embroidered director's chair.
To give new people the opportunity to win, once a 4-Her wins, they can't be awarded this top prize again. The result is that each year, previous winners can be seen coaching the younger contestants, sharing the knowledge and skills they learned over the years. This year, Amy Bodine, a senior at Glenelg High School, won the top prize.
The bred-by-exhibitor contest evaluates the 4-H'ers knowledge about genetics and conformation. The kids are expected to be able to relay what traits a female and male have that the 4-H'er hoped would be passed along to their offspring when the two were bred together. The participants also have to provide a four-generation pedigree.
This year, Stephanie Clark, a graduate of Glenelg High, won Champion. Her sister, Kristen Clark, a senior at Glenelg, won Reserve Champion.
By far the most difficult contest, though, is the judging contest.
By the time the 4-H'ers are in high school, they must be able to identify each body part (23 parts), every bone in a rabbit's body (there are 39) and the entire digestive system (that's 27 organs). They must be able to answer 10 questions about disqualifications from rabbit shows and name 10 pieces of equipment. They must answer 50 questions ranging on topics from genetics, to nutrition, to national requirements for certification. Given 10 rabbits, they must identify the breed, the variety and the show classification of each.
If this wasn't enough, they must then judge a group of four rabbits, decide how they should be ranked and then present their findings to a professional judge, while justifying your choices.
This year, 12 4-H'ers participated in this contest, many of them only in their first year of raising rabbits. In the Junior age bracket, ages 8-10, Danielle Hurd won first place, Harrison Mayo placed second, Maoliosa Wilson placed third and James Curry placed 4th.
At the Intermediate level, ages 11-13, Matthew Hulett took first place, Emily Buckley placed second, Rose Sanicola placed third, Karlie Capozolli earned fourth and Iliana Hernadez earned fifth.
In the Senior division, ages 14-19, Stephanie Clark earned the first place award with a score of 451 out of 469 points, or 96 percent. Kristen Clark placed second and Amy Bodine placed third. All these young people now have the opportunity to compete at the state level on Labor Day at the Maryland State Fair.
Lest you think that being a 4-H'er is all about contests, it's not. Before the fair even began, many of these kids showed up to help set up the cages and tables in the rabbit pavilion. Throughout the week, 4-H members helped each other, educated visitors about rabbits and developed friendships. On the closing night of the fair, quite a few 4-H members stayed late and in the drizzling rain helped clean and move all the cages and tables back into storage. By the way, setting up and putting away were completely voluntary with no premiums awarded for their efforts.
Laura Hulett, mother of an Intermediate member, said, "There's a lot of new members this year and they've really become a cohesive group."
Parents of these new members were overheard discussing how good this experience has been for the child or teen. They listed public speaking, decision-making, responsibility and confidence as some of the skills they see 4-H'ers acquiring.
Dr. Wendy Feaga, one of two co-chairs for the rabbit department, was so impressed with the attitude and helpfulness that she sent an email out the next day, thanking everyone for their "cooperation and great spirit."
I'd like to add my own praise for the kids and the behavior that they displayed throughout the week. In the real world, sometimes competition can bring out the worst in people. At the county fair, however, I saw the potential for the future in these young people. I saw a world where friendly competition can exist along with tutoring, camaraderie, volunteerism, and a positive attitude. Congratulations to you all, for what you achieved and for who you are!