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As County Fair nears, youth looks to profit


Nestled in for an afternoon summer snooze in the cool of a barn, Jason Spicer's rotund pigs are the picture of contentment. Not even the legions of blood-thirsty green and black flies whirring in the shafts of light disturb their languor.

By midweek, things won't seem so rosy for one of them:

Jason, 16, will sell the heaviest pig at the Howard County Fair's 4-H livestock auction for quick slaughter. And you'll get no woeful tears of regret for the odoriferous, though arguably cute, oinker from him.

"I make more money off the market swine I raise each year than anything else," beams the Mount Airy youth. "Pigs are just great that way!"

Last year's profit: $614. He hopes to better that at Wednesday night's livestock auction.

It may not seem a financial windfall, considering Jason has put almost an entire year's effort into raising the market pigs. But as the amiable teen sees it, there are long-term benefits from his work with the pigs and the passel of other livestock he's raising that are brighter than the glitter of greenbacks. Call them life lessons.

"I've learned a lot about responsibility -- what it really means. You can't raise sheep or cattle and not learn responsibility. I'm used to working hard.

"I guess you could say I'm a lot more prepared for life outside of the home than most other kids my age," he says.

That all may sound like 4-H public relations boosterism. After all, it is the eve of the 4-H club's main public event of the year -- the county fair.

But talk with other club members in the county who've entered livestock in this week's competitions at the fair and you hear similar accolades for the enduring lessons learned in 4-H.

"You learn a lot about managing your time and making choices between what you'd like to do and what needs to be done," says Jason Murray, 15, as he struggles to round up a powerful, 350-pound yearling ram, appropriately named Rex, in a pen to show off to a visitor.

"There have been a lot of times my friends have called me to go out and I have to turn it down because a lamb is sick or something else with the sheep."

Martin Hamilton, an agent with the University of Maryland agricultural extension office in Howard County, works closely with 4-H clubs and members raising livestock.

The most enduring lesson of the 4-H experience for most youths, says Mr. Hamilton, is responsibility for their decisions and actions. "Give them some farm animals to care and answer for," says Mr. Hamilton. "They find they can't just leave a problem lTC with an animal until later because they want to go to the movies or something."

Jason and his brother Matthew, 16, have been 4-H members since they were each 8 years old. Since that time, their 4-H "project" has focused on raising sheep on some of the three acres that serves as the back yard of their California-style rancher home near Glenelg.

This year the teens have 37 sheep to tend. That's kept their days full with such chores as feeding the herd twice daily, nursing them through diseases, and exercising choice animals so their muscle tone will impress picky judges at the numerous shows they enter annually.

They also pitch in by passing their know-how on to 4-H Club members, ages 6 and 7, called "Clovers."

While both say they get a kick out of working with the animals and kids, there are drawbacks that sometimes weigh heavily.

For one, notes Jason, "sheep can sometimes be real nasty." And neither youth was able to play soccer, for example, because of rigid practice time requirements set by a coach. "Obviously, he was never in 4-H," surmises Jason.

Still, drawbacks pale in light of the payoffs, says Sharon Murray, the boys' mother.

"I've noticed since Matthew really got involved with working with the sheep that he's doing much better in school. He's more focused. And neither has time to get in trouble," she adds, the relief obvious.

To boot, says Mrs. Murray, both now have a solid sense of that all important skill needed to survive adulthood: financial management. Keeping detailed logs of livestock expenses and profits is a must among 4-H Club members.

For the Murray youths and the young Mr. Spicer, an advantageous lesson is learned in an art many corporate executives pay good money to grasp: time management.

For Jason, managing time properly is paramount. The clean-cut youth, who favors polo shirts and Docksiders to denim overalls and slop boots, each morning jots down on a clipboard an array of animal-related chores he must tend daily. And he has responsibilities enough to make an old mule kick.

Along with the six market pigs, Jason has five sheep, nine head of cattle, and two breedings pigs. He's also got chickens and the family's pet dog to tend -- not to mention a fledgling lawn-cutting service.

His day usually begins soon after dawn when he heads to the sheep pen tucked in the back yard of the family's rancher on Route 144 near Mount Airy.

After feeding the sheep, he'll jump in his recently purchased pick-up truck and zip a few miles south to a neighbor's farm where he boards some of his cattle and pigs. After seeing to the needs of his animals, he'll help farm workers with other animals or muck stalls to pay for keeping livestock on the property.

Then it's off to yet another farm where he keeps other animals, namely a prize steer he hopes will bring him a ribbon at the fair. In the afternoons he'll cut a lawn or two. At night, he hits the computer in his room to update records on his livestock.

Jason will have all of his livestock at the fair this week, competing in enough shows to make even the orneriest steer tire.

So, does all this enthusiasm and energy for livestock underscore a desire to be a full-time farmer later in life?

"No way," says Jason. "I want to be an architect."

Watch out builders.

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