From sheep shows to worm races, cake auctions to robotics competitions, a full range of 4-H club activities was on display this week at the 76th Annual Howard County Fair in West Friendship.
“The fair is our Super Bowl,” said Howard County 4-H administrative assistant Amy Brueckmann as hoards of bolo tie-wearing contestants prepped pigs for Tuesday’s 4-H/FFA Market Swine Show. “This is where [4-Hers] get to exhibit their hard work.”
Standing for “head, heart, hands and health,” 4-H is a national youth development organization with nearly 6 million participants that facilitates projects across a range of animal, environmental, and human science fields. Catering to a wide range of interests, 4-H relies on thousands of professionals and volunteers to instill 4-Hers with lifelong dedication to community service and leadership.
Howard County’s 4-H program is conducted by the University of Maryland Extension, a non-formal education system within the school’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. More than 300 youth members ages 8 to 18 participate in more than a dozen different clubs in the county that focus on poultry, livestock, shooting sports and more. The Clover Program offers age-appropriate opportunities to children 5 to 7 years old.
Michelle Hodiak, of Westminster, started out in the Clover Program and continued as a 4-H member for more than a decade. She loved the experience so much she now serves as an adult volunteer with the chicken project and on the sales committee, which helps auction livestock at the fair’s end.
“A lot of these kids work with their animals every morning, every night,” Hodiak says. “They’re walking them, they’re watering them, they’re fitting them, they’re clipping them. They might be in that [show] ring for two minutes, but they put hours and hours of time and energy into that project [before the fair].”
‘There’s something for everyone’
The 4-H program’s diversity is evident throughout the sawdust-saturated animal barns at the fair and defies typecasting.
“4-H really means everything, I think that’s one of the main reasons we operate,” says Blair Hill, a member of the fair’s board of directors. Hill’s daughter, Kaitlyn, 14, is a member of the Howard County Beef Club and showed pigs at this year’s Howard County Fair.
“Back in the day, there was the thought you had to have a farm to be in 4-H; that’s not the case,” Hill said. “It’s just a wonderful program that promotes leadership and gives [participants] exposure to things that perhaps they wouldn’t have normally in their lives.”
Kaitlyn agreed, adding that 4-H members can cater the program to their interests.
“From crafts to the animals to anything you really want it to be,” she said .
Austin Bagwell, 13, of Mount Airy and the son of Brueckmann, the county 4-H administrative assistant, exemplifies the interdisciplinary nature of the program. In addition to showing goats and pigs, he entered items in the woodworking, photography, home environment, baked goods, flowers and vegetable departments. Austin said he isn’t the exception, and that some 4-Hers “do everything.”
“We are very well rounded and offer a lot of projects,” said Chris Rein, 4-H program coordinator for the county. “That’s what makes us unique, because we do have so much volunteer-based knowledge that we’re able to offer programming to whatever the kid’s interest may be.”
The county’s 150 4-H adult volunteers bring professional expertise to the clubs, from beekeeping to electronics. These non-livestock 4-H projects can be viewed in the fair’s exhibition hall annex, which offers respite from the week’s 90-plus-degree heat. Ribbons adorn many of the displays, having been awarded by judges after interviews with 4-Hers about their projects.
The hall also plays host to a number of indoor 4-H competitions, including the small pet and wildlife exhibit and Dog Bowl, a skillathon-esque contest during which 4-Hers test their knowledge of canines. Blake Levin, 13, of Sykesville, joined the Happy Hounds 4-H Club after getting a dog of her own and enjoyed the opportunity to make new friends.
“I met a lot more people that are older than me and now know people that are in college,” said Levin, speaking to the 4-H community’s scope.
From generation to generation, a love for 4-H
Across the fairgrounds, it’s difficult to meet a 4-H member who was the first in their family to enter the program.
“My mom did it, my uncle did it, my aunt did it and my grandma did it,” Austin Bagwell said.
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Helen Quill, 14, is the president of the Dayton 4-H Club and exhibited 15 rabbits at the fair. All her rabbits are raised outdoors, which means hours of work keeping them cool in the summer and installing heaters and thawing their water throughout the winter. She and her brother followed their father Joe’s footsteps into the program.
“I have nothing but fond memories of 4-H and the things that I learned and the people I met,” said Joe Quill, talking over the whir of cooling fans near the rabbit enclosures. “So I was very, very excited to be able to get my children involved in 4-H.”
When Quill married, he and his wife moved to Silver Spring, but his love of Howard County never went away. Eventually, he bought property back in the county and his family now lives four driveways down from where he grew up in Highland. 4-H was a big part of what made the community special, he said .
“It’s amazing because a lot of the same people that were here are still here from my generation and then their children and their children’s children. It’s been really cool and a wonderful experience,” he said .
Quill’s appreciation for the program has certainty not been lost on his daughter, Helen.
“I, and all my fellow 4-Hers I know, have been told at some point in their life that they’re an old soul or that they’re a real responsible kid,” she said. “I can almost guarantee that that’s because of 4-H.”
The Howard County Fair runs through Saturday at the Howard County Fairgrounds, 2210 Fairgrounds Road, West Friendship. Tickets can be purchased and more information can be found at howardcountyfairmd.com.