For 4-H, it's fair and mostly suburban Club is losing its rural roots


Beth and Sandy Levy pulled their pickup truck and trailer onto the Timonium fairgrounds at 7 a.m. yesterday and unloaded -- a horse, two pigs, three rabbits, five chickens, three ducks, a dog and a 8-foot quilt.

"We've got to feed all of the animals and get them comfortable before they compete," Mrs. Levy said. "Beth has worked with them for months now and she knows their needs. In fact, she's a pro with these animals."

It's a ritual that Baltimore County's 4-H farm families have observed at their annual fair for more years than most can remember. But the Levys live not on a farm but in a residential housing development in Randallstown. They lease their animals from the owner of a large farm.

Welcome to the 4-H of the 1990s.

"Elderly people who own farms don't have to give up their land or their animals," explained Mrs. Levy, who keeps her stock on Glen Oak Farm on Rolling Road. "4-H kids go out after school and take care of the animals, and then compete with them in the fair in the summer."

With a decreasing number of farms in Baltimore County, 80 percent of the youngsters in the county's 4-H program live in residential areas, according to Fana Wolff, treasurer of the annual 4-H fair. The event opened Thursday and will conclude tomorrow.

"Baltimore County is quickly becoming more residential, but the 4-H fair gives kids who don't normally have a chance to work with animals an opportunity to be exposed to all types of animals," said Julie Brown, 40, of Kingsville, who was spinning wool into yarn. "Kids have come through asking all kinds of questions about animals they have only seen in story books."

Consider 10-year-old Alison Principe, of Owings Mills, who was bathing Molly, her 245-pound pig.

"I've always liked working with animals," she said, "but we didn't have enough land to raise any real farm animals, but I've gotten to work with chickens, rabbits and now pigs by keeping the animals at some else's farm."

And it's still tough to win a prize. "Every year the competition gets harder," said Amanda Bishop, 13, of Owings Mills. "You have to feed your animal well and treat it well.

But there are signs of change. To keep pace with children's interests and the latest trends, exhibits in computer technology, ecology, space and rockets were added this year.

"We try to keep updated with the times and collaborate the ideas students are learning in school too," Mrs. Wolff said.

With clothes-painting a growing trend in stores, the county fair added a T-shirt decorating exhibit this year.

Even so, many children prefer to work outside with animals.

"It gets hot sometimes feeding the pigs and washing them down, but it's always fun," said Mindy Chenowith, 13, of Loch Raven, as she led her pig, Ace, to a new stall. "He'll be butchered on Sunday, but raising them helps people along with food, so it's worth it."

Altogether, about 2,000 animals and other exhibits -- ranging from papier-mache and leather crafts to computer programs and ecology experiments -- are on display at the Timonium fair complex on York Road.

Last year, more than 10,000 people attended the fair. Hot weather may hold this year's attendance to 8,000, county fair vice president Thomas Denbow said.

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