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Harford youth sellers part with the animals they have raised for annual 4-H livestock sale

Zach Rose moves his Champion Bred and Owned Crossbred steer around the ring as the bids begin during Saturday's 4-H Livestock Auction at the Harford County Farm Fair.
Zach Rose moves his Champion Bred and Owned Crossbred steer around the ring as the bids begin during Saturday's 4-H Livestock Auction at the Harford County Farm Fair. (Matt Button / The Aegis/Baltimore Sun)

Elizabeth Balint entered the auction ring at the Harford County Farm Fair with her lamb, Avett, staying close by his side as she guided him around while auctioneers sought bids for the 114-pound market lamb.

Elizabeth, 12, of Churchville, fought back tears throughout the bidding, which ended with the lamb selling for $8.50 a pound. Avett was one of 161 farm animals, classified as “lots,” including lambs, goats, swine, cattle, even a few rabbits and poultry, that had been raised by youth members of Harford County 4-H chapters and the North Harford High School Future Farmers of America and put up for auction during the final night of the fair Saturday.

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The proceeds raised through the annual 4-H Livestock Sale, typically one of the most-popular events at the summer fair, go back to the sellers, who range in age from 8 to 19. Sellers can save the money for college or put in toward raising an animal for the next year’s fair. Buyers, including individuals and large and small businesses, can either send the animal to market for slaughter or donate it back for sale to raise money for the 4-H and FFA scholarship funds.

This year’s livestock sale, which lasted about four hours, raised more than $260,000, according to sale committee chair Mike Doran. A record $272,840 was raised in the 2018 sale, when 174 lots were listed. Doran noted participation was lower than last year, but prices were up overall, so things “average out.”

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“All in all, it was a good sale," he said.

Emotional challenges

The process of selling an animal can be emotional for the child and teen 4-Hers, as they have spent weeks and months raising it, giving it food and water, grooming and training it for the show ring.

Elizabeth Balint has been a 4-H member since age 6. Her younger sister, 9-year-old Catherine “Birdy” Balint became emotional after the sale of her lamb, Francis, and both girls were comforted by their older sister, Emma, and fellow 4-Hers after departing the show ring and posing for photos with their animals.

Even Emma, who at 17 is a veteran of 4-H and multiple livestock auctions, did not show animals this year but was on hand to support her younger sisters, wiped away a few tears.

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“I cried every year,” said Emma, who has been in 4-H since age 6 and is going into her senior year at The John Carroll School in Bel Air.

“It’s so hard when you put so much work into [the animals], and you spend so much time with them, but it’s for such an important cause — to support local agriculture, especially the youth in 4-H,” she said of the sale.

Emma is the oldest of four siblings, the daughters of Dan and Molly Balint of Waffle Hill Farm in Churchville. The 300-acre farm is owned by Lawrason Sayre, the girls’ great-grandfather and a participant in the recent “Food, Farmers and Community: Opening the Dialogue” symposium. It was held at Harford Community College in March to bring area residents and Harford farmers together and show the importance of supporting community agriculture as the industry continues to shrink nationwide.

“I love that there’s so many buyers out there [at the auction] tonight,” Emma said. “Agriculture is dying, and so it is so important that we keep supporting the youth in 4-H.”

Mary Balint, 15, has shown animals at the farm fair in the past but does not any longer, according to Emma, who said Mary is still heavily involved in the fair.

“Even if she isn’t doing animals any more, she is here all the time,” Emma said.

Catherine, known to her family as “Birdy,” showed at the fair for the first time this year. She showed woodworking and other crafts, in addition to her lamb.

Emma said Catherine, who is home schooled, is also known as her family’s “tiny naturalist” because of her love of nature and wildlife, including raising monarch butterflies.

“She has been a huge help around the farm all the time, and she loves it,” Emma said.

Elizabeth, who is going into the seventh grade at Southampton Middle School in Bel Air, described the process of raising animals and getting them ready for shows, starting with spending time and getting to know them, then moving on to techniques such as walking with halters.

“I’ll definitely keep doing it; it’s for a good cause,” she said.

Emma said all of the money she has earned through livestock sales goes toward her college education. She plans to be an English teacher, but hopes to live on a farm as well.

“You’re born into it,” she said. “You love it, so I can see myself always being involved in agriculture or 4-H in some way.”

Elizabeth also said she might not choose a career in agriculture, but still plans to live on a farm and work with animals in some capacity.

Molly Balint, 43, is the owner of Farmhouse Creative Marketing, a social media marketing firm. She works with farmers, teaching them to use social media to “tell their story and connect with their customers.”

Balint also wore a T-shirt Saturday with the slogan: “The Future is Female Farmers.”

She did 4-H as a youth, showing sheep, pigs and steers and was even a fair Farm Queen. Balint said 4-H had, during her time, “a pretty good mix” of boys and girls, although there are now more girls working with steers.

She also noted there are more women in agriculture “who are doing it on their own or taking the reins of their business — it’s neat to see.”

Balint said she has worked to teach her daughters the value of knowing where their food comes from, a lesson the girls can pass on to other youths who interact with their animals during the fair. That, then, helps “connect kids that aren’t part of this community to the agricultural community,” according to Balint.

As for the difficulty of parting with their animals, Balint said she typically talks with them when they acquire a new animal about what will happen “in the end.”

She emphasized that the animals receive “the best care, the best attention” while with the Balints, and the children can give them a great life as they prepare the animals for their eventual role as a food source for humans.

“[That is] what they’re made for, but we’re also giving them a respectful life,” Balint said. “So, I always tell my girls that ‘You’re giving them a good life.’ ”

Doran, the sale committee head, acknowledged the challenge of giving up animals, but noted how 4-H provides a support network.

“The kids are always helping each other and the 4-h is a great organization, they do a lot for kids,” he said.

Confidence building, hard work pays off

Another teen 4-Her, Brennan Stewart, sold a 236-pound spotted market hog. The buyer was Scott McGill, owner of the Forest Hill-based “ecological restoration” firm, Ecotone Inc.

Brennan, 17, later posed with McGill for a photo snapped by Brennan’s mother, Jan Stewart, as the youth thanked McGill for his support.

Brennan, whose family lives in Whiteford, is going into his senior year at North Harford High School in Pylesville, and he has been in 4-H for about nine years. He and his family live near Twin Pine Farm in Whiteford. The farm, which Jan Stewart said has been in her family for four generations, is currently operated by Brennan’s cousin and his wife.

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“I love it,” Brennan said of showing animals at the fair. “I couldn’t imagine going a year without it — it’s kind of a tradition.”

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Jan Stewart said she was in 4-H, as well as her parents. Stewart said the program has built her son’s confidence as he markets his animals to buyers ahead of the sale.

“He’s very confident in talking to people and being social and marketing his animal,” Stewart said. “He’s become a good speaker.”

“I want to stay in Harford County as long as I can,” Brennan said.

Brennan said he had “attachment issues” as a young 4-Her when it came time to part with his animals, but he has since learned to not get too attached.

“It’s just really satisfying to work hard on them for a couple of months and then sell them at a good price, make a profit,” he said.

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